Those new to the workforce feel a sense of "wanting to grow up." They look around and see experience in management and in some of the co-workers on their teams. They are acutely aware of what they don't know and are just as aware that there are even some things that they don't know they don't know (follow me?). I respect this. I am giddy with excitement at the future they will experience. I often express my eager hope for them and encourage them to enjoy the ride and take everything in. Have fun with it.
And then, it happens. A manager and an HR professional get together to discuss the learning plan for this new employee. And while I am a big believer in outlining expectations and encouraging learning, I have been known to take issue with the manner in which it's shared. Management and HR want this new employee to know how valuable he/she is. We express our happiness at his/her addition to the team. We smile. And then, our "engagement" dialogue begins.
I have been in the room for some of these learning plan discussions. What is to start out with a simple probe into what this employee has observed so far and where he/she sees some gaps that need to be filled turns into interrogation. "Vee haff VAYS of making hyu tok!" hangs over the employee as he/she gropes for some more answers to the thinly veiled question of "how much don't you know?" I have felt so badly for these employees that I have stepped in and encouraged a different question to be asked, or in some cases, have all but taken over the strategy meeting.
In a learning plan, the idea is to highlight areas for development and create strategies to engage education, modeling and practice into the plan. What we forget is that everything can't be learned tomorrow. We're so driven by results (which are important!) that we leave little to no room for development. Do you remember Kevin from Home Alone? His parents "accidentally" left him home for the Christmas holiday as the whole family headed to France. In their absence, Kevin felt the pressure to learn how to be an adult quickly and was very resourceful in doing so. In one part of the movie, he says, "I took a shower washing every body part with actual soap; including all my major crevices; including in between my toes and in my belly button, which I never did before but sort of enjoyed. I washed my hair with adult formula shampoo and used cream rinse for that just-washed shine. I can't seem to find my toothbrush, so I'll pick one up when I go out today. Other than that, I'm in good shape." And as the audience, we laugh because that's funny. Is it so funny at work?
When our new employees rush to impress because they are already feeling the pressure outlined heavily in our learning plans, they run through a list similar to Kevin's telling of all the great things they've done. They are validating their role, their existence. Sure, some of us would see these employees as brown-nosers or over-achievers, but worse would be labels such as lazy, unmotivated, or in some companies, the worst label of all - Gen Y (don't get me started!). As professionals, we have to consider our presentation of information as much as we consider the information itself. Learning objectives are valuable; continuing or establishing a learning culture is absolutely vital to competitive market strategies and to healthy employee engagement. However, when the delivery of those objectives is done in such a way as to make it "Hurry up and grow up today," pressure builds and insecurities for the employee rise to surface.
There is a real difference between expressing expectations and overshooting abilities. Some employees in some roles will need to acclimate to parts of their job first. Some roles are tough, some roles are multi-faceted. For some of these employees, this role may be their first real job after college. Don't you remember what it was like transitioning from wearing pajamas/sweats to class everyday to having to really get dressed for work (No? Just me? Awkward).
I recall one manager of mine who let me grow into the role. He laid out his expectations for me and peppered in often his belief that I would be successful in them. His confidence in me was a driver. His belief that the expectations he gave were things I would conquer, even if I couldn't see it myself at the time, was huge. He did not hand me the list and then heap on the "you better get this done" language. He allowed me room to use my personality mixed with my competencies to grow into the role...and to own it. He knew that I would and he didn't need me to get it all solved today.
Let's be really careful about how quickly we are asking our employees to master their roles. Do an assessment of what some of your most recent conversations were like. Own any language that expressed an overdue amount of pressure and forced maturity in the role, even if was unintentional. Allow those new employees to be guided with expectation, but not made grow up from 21 to 51 overnight. Embrace the talent you have today and encourage the greatness that caused you to hire them in the first place. Let the learning be seen as an everyday practice, not just during ramp up.
Use language to encourage while being clear in expectations. We want to have our talent set up for success, grow into their roles and be productive. It just shouldn't be forced to happen overnight.