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Employee development: A positive way to increase your employee engagement

15 min read
Employee development means helping employees to explore their interests and passions, and grow in the career direction that’s right for them. Done right, it means their future successes can directly help your company succeed.

What is employee development?

We usually define growth and employee development as a sister concept to training, but it extends further than that. It’s less about classroom learning and more about having a long-term plan for your employees that puts their curiosity and growth front and center.

Employers share a lot of responsibility for employee development, but it should never be a top-down directive imposed on staff. Instead, it’s a process and a deliberate practice that involves the right tools, the right culture, and plenty of high-quality conversations between staff, managers, and leaders.

Free eBook: Your guide to talent development using 360 Feedback

Why is employee development important?

Employee growth and development is valuable for many reasons. But the most compelling one might be its impact on engagement.

Growth and development is one of the strongest drivers of employee engagement seen across organisational listening programs. For example, the Qualtrics 2020 Global Employee Experience Trends report showed ‘opportunities for learning and development’ as a key driver for employee engagement.

When you invest in employee development:

  • Employees increase their knowledge, skills, and abilities
  • Leaders grow themselves and their teams – enabling team members to expand their responsibilities and work on diverse assignments
  • The organisation gains higher productivity, efficiency, and retention1

The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.

– Henry Ford

Employee development industry trends

Before thinking of how to improve employee development, it’s important to know what the current trends are:

Social learning for personal growth

Social learning is when you figure something out, it works well and you want to share it with others to benefit from your discovery. For employers, this helps employee development as it makes the task of providing learning easier.

A social learning environment is a space, usually, a digital one, where you can upvote, comment on or recommend training or learning opportunities within a community or peer group, like with LinkedIn or Facebook.

Social learning also has benefits around reward and recognition. Socially broadcasting things like rewarding an employee for excellent work can motivate others to engage with employee development opportunities.


Organizations are moving beyond thinking that they need only provide a one-size-fits-all set of training courses or highly structured learning paths. They are beginning to recognise that learning has to be more tailored and based on an individual’s unique requirements.

In some companies, employee development is an individualised journey. This idea ties in well with employee development, as employees can practice problem-solving and choose their own path. Organizations can still provide structured learning, but potentially with the addition of looser systems that add an element of gamification to boost exploration and involvement in the programs.

Career Lattice vs Career Ladder

Employee development can take the career ladder or lattice approach, which can support employee development plans as the employment landscape changes and people’s career journeys are less predictable.

The career ladder is the traditional, linear hierarchy we’ve seen historically, with a vertical journey through a defined career path. The career lattice is more representative of the kind of flat structures we are commonly seeing in start-ups and younger businesses or where organizations are flattening their structures intentionally.

In the latter, employees are encouraged to consider lateral moves to round out their experiences. They may gain a deeper appreciation of other aspects of the business or find a new place to apply their skills.

Specialisation vs Generalisation

Staying put in one role forever can be detrimental to personal growth and employee satisfaction levels. But what kind of role should you move to next?

In business, what’s dangerous is not to evolve.

– Jeff Bezos

There’s often a push and pull between encouraging super-specialised skill sets, with employees taking a deep dive into highly specific areas of expertise, and developing generalists who can play multiple roles and be agile in their assignments.

Leaders should be able to help their teams think through their options, assess where their strengths lie, and explore when to go deeper or expand to be more versatile. 360 degree feedback can be a great way to help assess strengths and sense-check personal assumptions about where someone’s skills lie.

What are employee development plans?

We want to help our employees find purpose in their work and inspire their curiosity, giving them the ability to set goals at the level of the overall vision, not one-time achievements.

We also want a system that encourages managers and employees to communicate honestly and authentically, so there is a collaborative space to explore the employee’s professional life.

A simple paper-based employee development plan is an action plan that covers:

  • The employee’s training and development goals
  • The skillsets they want to gain
  • The actions needed
  • The resources that the employees can use
  • The check-ins and additional training schedule
Employee development plan example

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A robust employee development program should allow you to retain your employees by:

  • Developing the top talent needed to improve organisational strength and achieve – business goals
  • Developing skilled and adaptable teams needed to drive business performance and navigate change
  • Being able to proactively act, easily measure, and clearly communicate results and business impact. This may require a robust software solution that can help you measure the individual employee development plans, but also the current workforce as well.

How do you create a robust employee development program?

There are some overarching themes that will help guide you to developing your perfect employee development program:

Integration vs bolt-on

However modern or well-designed a learning program is, it still needs to be connected to the organisation’s goals, purpose, and each person’s job description. This happens through conversations between managers and team members.

Plans must be made based on those discussions and in the context of those supportive professional relationships. In development one-to-one meetings, employees and their managers should always be thinking about the bigger ‘why’ behind the courses they’re taking – how that’s building a strength and how it will support the individual’s long-term growth.

Without that foundation of integrated thinking, it’s possible for employee development activities to feel like something that’s been imposed top-down, as a box-ticking exercise without a clear application to an employee’s work activities.

For example, a Personal Development Plan template can be invaluable, but it should be open to amendment. These kinds of options and tools should be brought in off the back of the kind of personal interactions and conversations we’ve discussed, through open communication and discussion of needs and goals.

A good sign that a development approach is integrated, rather than feeling bolted on, is clear and loud support in an organisation and an appetite among staff to take advantage of it. Another positive check is that space and time are cleared for it, and it’s not just put on top of an employee’s daily workload. Some other requirements may need to be moved aside to make time for participating in learning and practically applying the skills.

Learning doesn’t feel linear

Sometimes we believe that we’re great at something and rate our skills highly, then we find out a bit more about all that goes into it and feel despair at the mountain of effort to learn it all. Eventually, we may take for granted some of the hard-won lessons and assume that they’re common experiences or knowledge.

This is described as the Dunning-Kruger Effect (2), which charts the journey from beginners’ overconfidence through the struggle with true learning and on to growing competence and knowledge.

Learning programs can also help smooth out some of these curves and most importantly, help your people through the initial dip (‘the trough of despair’) where they may doubt themselves or feel like giving up on a long-term goal. Structure and support can be vital at that point where independent learners might falter.

Mastery vs Achievement

An achievement mindset focuses on meeting an end goal, such as passing an exam or gaining a title(3). It’s an approach that’s often carried over from how we learn at school or in early life. You prioritise what you need to pay attention to based on how the requirements meet the standard or bar.

By contrast, a mastery or growth mindset is often a loftier goal and puts the emphasis on a bigger picture like becoming fluent in a language (instead of passing the class exam). The learner sees their goal as improvement and has an applied, practical purpose in mind for the learning’s end results.

The mastery mindset is usually the more fruitful one when it comes to development, and it’s something that leaders can model and support employees in developing.

Hard and soft skills

Many employers find that not all new employees come in with the requisite soft skills for their roles. That’s especially true among workers early in their careers whose experience may be academic rather than professional.

Identifying where soft vs hard skills should be targeted, and how best to upskill in each, is essential for employees as they choose their goals.

hard skills vs soft skills table
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Employee development plan tips for managers

1. Make time and space for a learning culture

Don’t unintentionally punish employees for attending professional training opportunities by keeping the pressure of their day-to-day assignments at normal levels throughout.

Support and reinforce that the training is valuable by creating a learning culture. Ask your employee what’s important by asking them questions about what they’ve learned and their new skills.

Encourage employees to practice their new knowledge and share their improved performance with others. This could happen through cross-departmental collaboration.

2. Leverage the power of ownership

This is known as the IKEA effect (4) – it’s the idea that you love something more when you make it yourself. This is one of the reasons that we encourage every employee’s ownership of their own professional development. When done correctly, it leads to more engagement and pride in the end result.

This might mean designing their own employee development plan, rather than being told to use a standard employee development plan.

3. Budget for learning (and training)

Make sure development is seen as an essential investment, and express this in terms of time and dollars. If you’re in HR, you may think of this differently than if you’re a frontline leader working with teams, but either way, be protective of your budget and proud of your priorities.

Don’t let the time and money you’re putting into the effort be seen as a tertiary goal or a compliance activity – it’s a key component of your bottom line results.

4. Push progress, not perfection

Sometimes the best course of action is just to get started, and the act of beginning and committing can have huge value in itself. Being overly results-driven can lead to a temptation to rush, but when it comes to development, priorities are always changing and – with a mastery approach – may never be truly finished. Remember, we can move mountains a pebble at a time with consistency and persistence.

5. Remember that development is a practice

Like meditation or physical fitness, development is something that happens as a practice. It is maintained throughout the whole lifecycle of employment and at all levels of an organisation.

If a business sees employee development as something that’s been implemented and completed on an annual basis, the program may be doomed to feel burdensome and compliance-driven rather than expanding the potential opportunities for employees.

6. Put learning into context

Take a cue from the idea of social learning and place knowledge where it’s needed. Break out of the training course mould and adopt a just-in-time mindset, so that information is available to staff when they’re about to do a task or begin a process. Lunch-and-learns, team-created posters, digital tooltips, or even post-it notes can help you out here.

Reward people for sharing when they learn something new and useful. Learning takes hold when it is applied and we gain mastery over concepts as we practice them in real-world problem-solving settings.

How can you turn employee development into an engaged workforce?

Remember that employees bring their own unique needs and objectives to work and are in varying stages in their personal and professional lives. Despite this variety, companies often seek to understand employees through “one-size-fits-all” feedback programs that, at best, are analysing feedback by department, or job classifications.

To drive more actionable insights to improve internal career development, companies should instead examine feedback by employee personas and journeys tapping into a combination of experience data (X-data) and operational data (O-data). This is Employee Experience Management (XM) comes in:

What is experience management?

This will also help with decreasing employee attrition rates and attracting new hires and job seekers with your commitment to your people.

The Qualtrics Employee Experience Management solution can help your employee development plan and internal training real-time feedback. This helps you:

  • Understand the effectiveness of training and how courses are impacting key metrics
  • Link training history to performance data to gauge the short- and long-term impact of training
  • Invest in training programs that deliver tangible results and drive up performance

eBook: Your guide to talent development using 360 Feedback