Over the past few years, there has been great emphasis on using technology to support learning efforts and to deliver content. But if you’re a manager and you have an employee who needs development, an app is not going to read your mind and speak your words. At least not yet. You must be able to explain what you want and assess how the employee is doing. To do that, you must be specific.
Let’s focus on theses three areas:
- Development feedback:
- Development goal: If you can’t be specific, a development goal and the plan that follows from it will be more about intentions than action – for the same reason as the first bullet. If someone doesn’t know specifically what to work on, he or she can work on any number of things and not get anywhere near the goal.
- Evaluation: If you can’t be specific, any assessment or evaluation you make of someone’s development will be vague and probably not very useful. Again, because you don’t really know what to evaluate.
I will discuss each of these in turn.
If you can’t be specific, any development feedback you deliver will be vague and ineffective. The employee will not know what to do differently because you didn’t identify it. Here’s an example.
Some people have told Sean that he is too aggressive. Others have told him that he seems very confident. While others have told him that he’s too arrogant. Same behavior, different interpretations of that behavior.
People often use words like aggressive, arrogant, and confident as if the words described actual behavior. They don’t. They describe an interpretation of another person’s behavior.
If Sean wants to change his behavior, he must know what behavior to change. Perhaps it’s the way he handles interruptions in meetings he is leading. Maybe he pushes his ideas and appears to ignore the ideas of others. Maybe it’s a facial expression.
We could come up with other possibilities. The point is: If you want Sean to change behavior, you must tell him what behavior he needs to change. And you must be specific. Words like arrogant or aggressive do not help.
Sometimes it’s challenging to find the right words. In cases like that, having a recording can help. And if that isn’t possible, find an example of the behavior you do want – a video would be helpful here – and use that behavior as the development goal and build your feedback on how Sean does in relation to it.
If you can’t be specific, a development goal and the plan that follows from it will be more about intentions than action: you might read this or try that. But it’s not clear you will have improved whatever needed improving. A development plan starts with a development goal. A specific development goal facilitates identification of the steps needed to accomplish the goal.
For example, here’s a development goal I found online recently: Improve communication skills.
The challenge here is that there is no indication about where to focus a development effort, and there are many possibilities. Let’s take communication as an example.
Is it written communication? Oral? If oral communication, it could be anything from delivering feedback to making a presentation. If making a presentation, it could be how to do PowerPoint, effective gestures, how to use your voice, etc.
There could be a separate development plan for each of those.
The goal also could include other elements of the traditional SMART goal. (SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic or relevant, and time-bound.) Being specific and measurable – sometimes they are almost the same – are the most challenging elements to identify and the most essential.
If you can’t be specific, any assessment or evaluation you make of someone’s development will be vague and probably not very useful. Again, because you don’t really know what to evaluate.
All development aims at the acquisition or enhancement of knowledge and /or skills: you know something and can apply what you know appropriately.
It’s easy to imagine that evaluation requires some complex evaluation scheme or that it is necessary to construct some sort of test. This isn’t a school. And the assessment process is much easier than having to build a valid and reliable evaluation tool.
There are two primary requirements:
- The manager must specify what the employee must be able to know and/or do
- The employee must understand what he or she is supposed to know and/or be able to do.
For example, let’s say the development goal is:
Learn and be able to apply the company’s procedure for returning merchandise.
To evaluate: the manager will know the employee has accomplished this goal when the manager observes the employee successfully implementing the procedure.
Here’s another example:
Learn and be able to apply three active listening skills: paraphrasing, asking clarifying questions, demonstrating attentiveness through body language, such as slightly leaning forward and looking at the speaker.
To evaluate: the manager will know the employee has accomplished this goal by observing successful implementation.
In business, people are familiar with the need to be specific. That’s why they usually want numbers. (Of course, a number by itself is just a number; it could mean anything.) But numbers aren’t the only way to be specific.
Development focuses on acquisition or enhancement of knowledge and/or skills. If you are a manager, you can be specific about knowledge and skills by explaining what you want someone to know and be able to do. Use behavioral terms to describe what you want them to do. If you have difficulty expressing in words what you want someone to do, provide an example.
When you can be specific, you can
- Provide effective feedback
- Prepare a development goal that can lead to a workable development plan
- Accurately assess whether someone has learned what they are supposed to learn