Discussing Development Plans

When dealing with an underperforming employee, a structured process can provide a framework that helps both the manager and employee walk through the necessary steps to increased engagement and productivity.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014
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If a worker isn't doing performing well, it can lead to a difficult conversation. That appears to be the reason that many managers say they're not comfortable talking with an employee about that employee's progress or lack of progress on a development plan. 

There is a way to make such conversations easier - though not necessarily easy.

When dealing with this sort of situation, a structured process can provide a framework that helps both the manager and employee walk through the necessary steps. Project management provides that framework.

Think of the development plan as a project and this meeting as a project-status meeting. 

The manager is the project manager and the employee is the project implementer. The project is the development plan.

As in all project status meetings, the project implementer provides the status report on the project (development plan). The project manager listens, asks questions, challenges as needed, provides feedback and advice, etc. -- all the things a manager ought to be doing in an employee development discussion.  Interestingly, most managers don't appear to have the same discomfort with project status meetings that they do with employee development meetings. And, within the context of project status meetings, it appears that most managers have the skills for handling potentially difficult conversations.

Of course any project status meeting will not be successful if the plan on which the meeting is based is not done well. But that's not all, the manager's and employee's accountabilities should be clear to both as should the process for the discussion. Following is a brief discussion of the accountabilities, the plan, and the meeting process.


Development is a project in which the employee is the project implementer and the manager is the project manager. Each has clear and mutually understood responsibilities: The manager ensures the development plan is established and provides ongoing support during implementation; and the employee creates the plan, implements it and learns from it.

Both are accountable for the outcome.

The Plan

Research tells us that the focus of the discussion should be on the actions and milestones spelled out in the plan and what the project implementer is doing to accomplish them.  This can easily lead to useful discussions and problem solving. This focus on the tasks and behavior can make a difficult discussion easier because it is not personal. But it is also the best approach when the project or development plan is going well. That is because it helps the employee learn about what he or she is doing well and what still may need to be addressed.

The plan should be written in concrete behavioral terms. Each step is an action that leads to a milestone that ultimately leads to the goal. If the employee has taken the steps in the plan, you can know that. If not, use the meeting to problem solve or take other steps.

If the employee has accomplished the goal, you can know that, too. Learning or development on the job focuses on acquisition of knowledge and or skill. The goal, therefore, is that the employee will know and/or be able to do something he or she didn't know or couldn't do before. This is not difficult to determine. It's simply a matter of the employee demonstrating the knowledge or skill.

The Meeting

As in any other project-status meeting, both the project manager and the project implementer prepare in advance for the meeting. The project implementer - the employee - goes first. He or she discusses a specific section of the plan. Having a plan with concrete specific steps and milestones makes this much easier to do. The manager listens, asks questions, contributes to problem solving, and helps to re-scope the plan if needed. Projects are re-scoped all the time, as more information becomes known and roadblocks and challenges are discovered. There is no reason to assume that a development plan will be or should be different.

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It is important to remember that learning stops when people are reluctant to reveal anything less-than-perfect results. An effective status meeting requires that both the manager and the employee be able to discuss what is going well and what isn't. It will not succeed if the employee is afraid to report and discuss actual results.

Here are some questions to consider using:

•    What step(s) in the project are we addressing? What did you do?

•    What happened and why? What did you expect to learn/accomplish?

•    What challenges did you encounter? What did you do to address them?

•    What remains to be done? What should you stop doing or start doing now?

•    What still needs to be done and what support might be needed?

In conclusion, project management provides a useful and well understood process in which there are: clear and mutually understood accountabilities, a plan with concrete steps and milestones that provide focus for the discussion, and a well understood protocol for the discussion itself. 

David Berke, the author of Supported Self-Development, is a principal at Lorsch, Berke & Associates in Encinitas, Calif.

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