Helping your team members develop their skills can pay off in all sorts of ways: They’ll get better results in their work, be able to shift more and more work from your plate to theirs, will generally stick around longer and feel more fulfilled when they can see themselves growing professionally. But what do you do when staff members are nervous about taking on something they’ve never done before and don’t know if they’ll succeed at?
Here are four ways to help employees step out of their comfort zones and develop new skills.
1. Err on the side of letting your staff members make decisions whenever you can. Managers sometimes get so used to making decisions that they forget to step back and let team members make decisions when circumstances allow for it. If you’re asked to weigh in on something and you don’t feel strongly about the decision, hold your tongue and instead leave it up to your staff member. If you’re always calling the shots yourself, your staffer won’t get experience thinking through decisions – which is essential to doing higher and higher level work. So when you spot opportunities to pass that decision-making responsibility along, do it. Get comfortable with the words “It’s up to you” or “What do you think?”
2. Give people stretch assignments and tell them why you think they’ll be able to handle it. Assigning projects that require developing new skills (or using old skills at a higher level) is one of the best ways to develop employees, since most people learn by doing. But in order to make sure your employee doesn’t feel thrown to the wolves, make sure to explain why you think she can handle it – such as by pointing to great work that she’s done in a similar area, or talking about strengths you’ve observed in her that will help her tackle this new frontier. Additionally….
3. Use a gradual approach. If your staff member is daunted by the thought of taking on a whole new type of work that she’s never done before, make it more manageable by breaking it into smaller pieces. For instance, rather than just putting a staff member in charge of training new employees, start by talking with her about how you normally train people, what it looks like when it goes smoothly, and what the pitfalls are. Then let her sit in while you train someone, or jointly train someone together. Then the next time a new hire needs to be trained, you might have her manage the process, but look over her training plan and reflect with her afterwards about how it went. In other words, ease people into new areas gradually, before you expect them to do it on their own without help from you.
4. Model the skill yourself – and talk about what you’re doing and why. Often people need to see and reflect on how a skill is used before feeling comfortable doing it themselves. So if, for instance, you’re trying to help a staff member get better at running strategy meetings, you might have her watch while you lead one. Then, afterwards, meet to talk over what you did and why, such as how you got the group to agree to an agenda at the start of the meeting, why you left a particular tangent run its course while choosing to redirect another one, and how you drew out quieter members of the group. This type of watching and reflecting can help people feel much more prepared to practice the skill themselves.