Four Tips for Supporting Employee Development

Climbing your way to higher job performance requires simple steps

Slowly, but surely, Grace is now able to climb the stairs, something she hasn’t done for a few weeks due to recent back issues. But with some support from others, we can help her climb to new heights. Employees need the same help from managers.

Yesterday, Grace wasn’t able to climb stairs. Today she can. A small spine adjustment done by a caring, competent chiropractor did the trick. It was quick. Easy. Simple.

Well, not really. Not so quick, not so easy, not so simple.

Don’t you wish you could send an ailing employee to a specialist and have a positive change occur instantaneously? What if you could flip a switch and all the conflict, errors, and communication issues dissolved in an instant and the workplace hummed along where everyone enjoyed each other, profits soared, and the environment was filled with fun and laughter?

Grace’s ability to move freely up and down stairs is a metaphor for how we, as managers, can help our employees find ways to navigate in their jobs more easily. Each individual possesses a unique set of skills, strengths, and weaknesses. We all need to learn how to work within that framework for our best outcomes.

I learned yesterday from this delightful chiropractor that the structure of Grace’s lower back is not exactly the model of perfection. She has a strong curvature that creates compression which is exacerbated by her frequent tensing and cowering that comes from her fearful disposition. So while the chiropractor’s adjustment made a temporary bridge of comfort for her mobility, Grace — and her body — will revert back to the problem if we don’t find better ways for her to stretch that area as well as minimize her constant tensing. So yes, the fix was quick. But not permanent.

I have my work cut out for me. At the moment, I have absolutely no idea how to get Grace to stretch in ways that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable to her. But it’s no different that the situations managers face in trying to find supportive solutions for employees.  It might be easy for someone to make a change once. But repeating something outside their comfort zone is much more difficult to be sustainable, unless you have a plan. What we all want is a quick fix. But solutions require ongoing work and commitment.

Think about a traditional newspaper reporter who is hired into a new role to produce video segments. But by nature, the reporter is more familiar with being behind the scenes, has a more reserved disposition and therefore they come across as cold, uninterested in their interviewees and the topic, even though they may have great passion in the topic. It just doesn’t come across that way. Their natural style is preventing their best work, and also impacting the quality of the outcomes for the product, and ultimately, the reputation of the organization as a trusted news source. If the manager does nothing, an opportunity is missed to help the reporter grow within their role, to expand from the written word which has been comfortable and familiar all their career. There is another enormous risk that the audience will have a diminished perception of the organization based on the quality of the newscast.

Given a mutual interest to develop the desirable camera-friendly reporting presence, there are lots of ways the manager and employee can work together for this improvement.

Here are my four (quick, easy, and simple!) tips for encouraging professional growth and development:

  1. How much is the stretch? Is it reasonable to assume that the person can make the necessary adjustments? In other words, if the job and person are misaligned in huge ways, you’re really asking for trouble.  It’s best to consider investing in growth opportunities if the development areas are a natural outgrowth of existing skills and tendencies. That’s only fair to the employee, too. You do not want to set up a person for failure because you’re asking them to do things that are just too contrary to their strengths and interests.
  2. How bad does the person want the change? In the example above, if the reporter has no interest in coming out of his shell, it probably won’t occur. Put all your efforts to helping support a person who wants to change.
  3. Take baby steps. Create a plan with a progression on action steps. Recognize and celebrate the small things and the big changes will follow.
  4. Try something different. As I wrote about last time, I took Grace to our vet who confirmed the back issue and adjusted her spine. However, in the days that followed, there was absolutely no change in her movements. I decided to call a new chiropractor, someone I did not know but came highly recommended. I could have stayed with the first vet — a perfectly capable professional — and tried to force a change to happen. And I almost did just that, out of respect to someone who has helped us in the past. But by exploring a new alternative to the same problem, the results were dramatically different. The two chiropractors have equivalent skills, knowledge, and good intentions. It just boiled down to Grace being more receptive to the technique of one versus the other (one used a tool that made a slight popping noise, enough to make Grace very nervous, given her fear of those types of noises). It was an excellent example of how we need to find the methods that work for a particular individual. One way does not work for everyone!

Grace continues to be a teacher for me. And your employees can teach you, too. Be open to their experiences and work with them to help them grow and develop.

They can climb their way to where they want to go. If you’d like to have some additional support, let me know. And if you know of any dog yoga poses for the lumbar spine, please comment!


Smart Tips Served Straight to Your Inbox

Want to build healthy, productive workplace relationships??? Join our community of Graceful Leaders/Managers and get access to tips, insights, and resources right in your inbox.

BONUS: Sign up now and receive a FREE animal-inspired gift: “3 Management Tips from Dog!"

Share with a friend using one of the buttons below. Then sign up so you can receive stories, tips, and guidance to help you develop healthy workplace relationships in your organization!


  1. Laurie Bartolo on October 18, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Hi Robin! I’m so glad you’ve found a good, albeit temporary, solution for Grace. I hope she continues to improve and you find some way to build on the progress so far. So much of her story is relevant to the workplace – but the one piece that really stuck with me was the frequent cowering and tensing that compounds her problem. It’s so difficult to help another person (or canine!) to reach their potential when fear is part of the equation. Sometimes it is self-inflicted fear that comes with life-long patterns, and other times it’s environmental, as in the fear inherent in a low-trust workplace. The four tips you’ve provided focus on the things that are really important to think about – and I’ve found #2 to be the most important in these situations. Best wishes to Grace on her road to recovery!

  2. Robin on October 18, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    Oh my gosh, Laurie, what a cool observation. I hadn’t even thought of that, but how incredibly true. Fear will definitely negatively impact any forward motion. Thank you so much for pointing that out. And yes, that second item about the individual’s motivation is key, isn’t it? So often, I hear a hiring manager say something like, “But I know they can do it ….” and my response is, “But does that person WANT to do it?”

    I always enjoy and appreciate your perspective. Thank you.

  3. Adam Sutton on November 5, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Such a wonderful piece, thanks! So simple, clear, and easy to apply to challenges at work. I immediately resonated with the sometime slow-going nature of positive behavioral change, and how important it is to address fears in order to make space to open the heart.

    Many blessings!


    • Robin on November 5, 2012 at 8:54 pm

      Beautifully said, Adam, that we need to address fears first in order to overcome them. Thank you for your contributing your thoughts!

Leave a Comment