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What If Employees Could Say "Leave Me Alone" Related to Professional Development?

Let's face it, any time we talk about professional development, we talk in broad terms.

Everyone needs to be developed.  We're building a shining city on the hill here, people.

But you and I both know that not everyone wants to be a rock star.  There's a lot of your people that just want to do their job, keep cashing those checks and clock in/clock out.  They'd rather not be part of your expansive plan to Go-away make everyone promotable two levels up.

They'd like to define themselves as "well placed."  Of course, when you come around and ask, "what do you want to be?", they're not going to say, "exactly what I am now."  There's risk in America in not having ambition.

Yet ambition is exactly what a large percentage of your employees don't have.

What if you had "opt-in" development plans?  What if your employees had the right to say "leave me alone" when it comes to professional development?   They'd be more satisfied and content, that's what would happen.  

--Option 1 is to build enough trust where you could ask the question and get honest answers.  But that's probably not going to happen at most companies.

--Option 2?  You've got to make a lot of your professional development plans contingent upon the employee actually guiding themselves.  You give everyone access and let them tell you the truth with their actions.  No action across time is the equivalent of the "leave me alone" opt-out.  Then you need to move them to another bucket.

I recently did a post over at Fistful of Talent for Halogen Software on Goal Settting.  My hypothesis was that assuming all employees had big dreams and big goals was a sucker's play.  With that in mind, I outlined the following for the middle class of your employee population when it came to goal setting:

"The Jimmy Eat World Crew (aka, the Middle) – This group doesn’t know who they are, hence my naming convention with a hat tip to an Alt Rock band that should have done better than they did, but didn’t.  Here’s some lyrics from the most popular Jimmy Eat World single, “The Middle“:

“Hey, don’t write yourself off yet
It’s only in your head you feel left out or looked down on
Just try your best (Just try your best), try everything you can
And don’t you worry what they tell themselves when you’re away”

Holy Sh*t.  That sums up all you need to know about this group.  They could go either way.  They could be a star or part of the great class of disgruntled employees that’s dragging your company down, one crappy interaction a time.  BTW, most of the employees in the Jimmy Eat World division are in their first two years.  After two years, they’re either on their way to being a star, or they’ve given up and are more focused on smoking in the boys room than they are about giving you discretionary effort.

All goals for this group should be structured as follows:

–Number of ditches and relative quality of ditches dug in each goal area.

–Something you’re asking the employee to work on skill-wise in each goal area to get better and thus, be more marketable long-term.

Primary Feature of Goal Setting for the Jimmy Eat World Crew:  You’re giving them something that all stars had at one time—access to a coach giving feedback on how to get better. They either take that and run with it or they don’t.  You go through a couple of goal-setting cycles with people in the middle, evaluate their response, then either move them up or down depending on their reaction."

That's what I wrote for Goal Setting, and I think Professional Development is very close to being the same. The key in what I wrote above is this line - "BTW, most of the employees in the Jimmy Eat World division are in their first two years.  After two years, they’re either on their way to being a star, or they’ve given up and are more focused on smoking in the boys room than they are about giving you discretionary effort."

You're all great HR/Talent pros, and I understand you can't allow people to say "leave me alone" when it comes to professional development.  But you can make people do some of the work, and if they choose not to, you could probably quietly restrict your effort (and their access) related to professional development.

Odds are they wouldn't even notice.  They told you "leave me alone" based on their actions if you set your program up in the right way.


Samuel Dergel


Great points. Not every employee is as motivated as their leaders hope they would be.

PD dollars could be better spent by allocating a spending account (PDSA) to be used. Annual evaluations could look at the quality and appropriateness of the use of these funds.

Wrote an article on this last fall.


Robert Fitt

Interesting post, Kris. When I sit down with employees and talk about career development, it becomes patently obvious who wants it and who doesn't. Those who want it are very vocal, even outside of these types of meetings. Those who don't tend to look more insular, at ways to develop by improving their own work rather than aspiring to be something else in the future.

Perhaps as you mention many leaders are not comfortable asking these questions, as they are not training or skilled at what answers they should be giving.

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