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How to have better development discussions

Nicholas Roi

Development discussions

Discussions about development are often tacked onto the end of a performance review – but you can get so much more out of them if they’re approached properly, says Nicholas Roi

When it comes to talent management, things are rarely straightforward. You can make the process easier by adopting software and technologies that reduce administration and improve implementation; however the need for human input will always remain. But then it’s the human aspect of HR and talent management that most practitioners love.

One of the toughest aspects of talent management is the appraisal and development discussion. It’s an event that affects emotions, bringing out both the best and worst in people. Because of this, such discussions should be handled with care and approached with individuals in mind.

It sounds obvious, but all too often development is managed with a one size-fits all approach. This is where it goes wrong, because while the approach you take with staff member A may be successful, the same method with employee B might cause distress and anger.

To get around this, there are two things that should be done. First, team members should be categorised according to experience and potential. And second, a decision should be made as to how emotions arising from the appraisal can be prevented from affecting the development discussion. 

Categorising employees:

  • The seasoned employee
    The seasoned employee has been with their company for a long time, they know their role inside out and may have reached the height of their career potential. This means that, while they may have skills they want to develop, there’s less of a formal discussion required. In fact a formal meeting might come across as patronising – especially if the HRD/manager is considerably younger. Instead of creating a development plan, managers should rather check in and ask: “Are you still happy and is there anything different you’d like to do? This should be done regularly so that the employee knows they haven’t been forgotten.
  • The up-and-coming employee
    The up-and-coming employee is relatively new to their role, brimming with ambition and the perfect example of someone that can be moulded through an appropriate talent management process. They should be engaged in detailed discussions about their ambitions, strengths and weaknesses and development potential at the company.
  • The pivotal employees
    Pivotal employees are full of potential and represent the future of their employer’s business. This means they are a talent that needs to be retained for the benefit of the company. Extra time should be spent creating a detailed development plan with them and it should be revisited regularly – not just on an annual basis. The key is to make them feel valued.
  • The problem employee
    Development discussions with problem employees must be approached with great care. Conversations should be about dealing with the here-and-now issues as opposed to future training, while it might be worth investing in one-on-one coaching time with them until progress is made. Transitioning a problem employee to a pivotal one is extremely rewarding and will be worth the effort involved. Of course, if no progress is made then another type of discussion may be required.


Separating the appraisal and development discussion can improve the effectiveness of the latter, as the emotions brought about by an appraisal have the potential to override any other dialogue. There are four ways in which the appraisal and development discussion can be physically separated (while remaining intrinsically linked).

  1. Peer responsibility
    By conducting appraisals using the 360 degree method, the peers’ opinion of the employee’s work becomes more important than the manager’s opinion. This use of peer assessment takes pressure off the manager who can focus on discussing how an employee can develop.
  2. The boss’ boss
    In this situation the line manager carries out the appraisal and consults with their own manager who then has primary responsibility for mentoring and development.
  3. Time is a healer
    There’s no reason why both processes have to happen at the same time. While holding two meetings instead of one can seem like a waste of time, it may be the only way to get the development discussion done properly. By inserting time between the two, greater consideration can be given to any delicate issues arising from the appraisal.
  4. Physical space
    As with a time split, a physical separation can provide psychological distance between the appraisal and the development discussions. An office is the natural place for the appraisal discussion; a less formal setting such as a café or even going for a stroll can be conducive to a conversation about development.

To get the most from the development chat, it is vital to resist the ‘one size fits all’ attitude. It may be the easy option, but sometimes the messier approach, where managers consciously segment the employee population, and separate the appraisal, can save time and prove more effective and lucrative in the long run.

Nicholas Roi is managing director of SilkRoad, suppliers of talent management SaaS solutions


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