All posts by Cindy McCauley

Cindy McCauley
Cindy McCauley is a Senior Fellow in Research & Innovation at the Center for Creative Leadership. She is co-editor of Experience-Driven Leader Development and Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent. Her research and applied work has made her an advocate for using on-the-job experience as a central leader development strategy, for seeing leadership as a product of the collective, and for integrating constructive-developmental theories of human behavior into leadership development practice.

Leader Development: Beyond the Workplace


A recent conversation with colleagues at Taproot Foundation was a welcome opportunity for me to once again explore the leader development opportunities in people’s lives outside the workplace.

taproot-logoThe Taproot Foundation’s mission is to drive social change by leading, mobilizing, and engaging professionals in pro bono service. They work to match skilled volunteers with pro bono opportunities. But here is what I was most interested in: They also work with forward-thinking organizations to design pro bono programs that go beyond employee engagement to capitalize on the leader development and team building opportunities embedded in volunteer work.

Group of children at soccer practiceAlthough many of us are prone to compartmentalize our lives into work, family, community, and leisure domains, effective leaders have long been applying leadership skills and insights developed in one setting to the challenges encountered in other settings. I worked once with an executive who was focusing on working with his direct reports in more of what he called a teaching mode rather than a telling mode. He drew from his experience as a volunteer coach for his daughter’s soccer team to articulate what teaching entailed and adapted skills developed in that setting to the workplace.

In their research on the relationship between multiple life roles and effective performance at work, Marian Ruderman and Patricia Ohlott found evidence that experiences outside of work can provide the practical skills and psychological support that enhances leadership effectiveness on the job (Academy of Management Journal, 2002). Experiences as a volunteer, parent, neighbor, traveler, or hobbyist can enhance a wide range of skills, from selling a concept and planning events to resolving conflict and handling ambiguity.

Corporate Social Responsibility and Learning & Development functions in organizations are now collaborating to more intentionally leverage the leadership development potential in employee volunteer programs. What does leveraging this potential entail?

  • Recognizing the kind of stretch experiences that a volunteer will likely encounter—and the competencies such experiences develop. For example, these employees will be in unfamiliar settings with limited knowledge of how things work. To be successful in these settings, they will have to expand their network, be an agile learner, and develop comfort with ambiguity. Volunteers will also likely be working in a more resource-constrained environment—a challenge that can spark creativity and force the re-examination of assumptions. If volunteers go into the assignment knowing not only what talents they have to offer, but also what they can gain from the experience, then efforts to learn and grow can be more deliberate.
  • Designing pro bono experiences to target specific competencies that the organization needs to realize its strategic goals. For a number of organizations, the aim is more leaders adept at working in a global environment. Global pro bono programs are a way to give more employees a global leadership experience. These programs typically deploy multi-cultural teams to emerging-market countries to help organizations or government agencies solve problems. These short-term assignment expose participants to different worldviews, require collaboration across cultural boundaries, and deliver on-the-ground lessons in adaptation to local context.
  • Making pro bono work the centerpiece of a broader learning experience. IBM’s global pro bono program (Corporate Service Corps) starts with three months of preparation, including self-reflection and personal goal-setting, an intense structured learning curriculum, and virtual teambuilding. A CSC alumnus serves as the team’s facilitator. And after the one-month in-country pro bono work, participants have two months to reflect on and harvest key insights, and then share the experience and those insights with back-home colleagues. These elements of the program serve to maximize the learning gained from the pro bono experience.

Taproot Foundation has put together a useful Program Design Roadmap to help you start imagining and planning how you can integrate pro bono work and talent development in your own organization.

Most organizations find that they don’t have enough of the right kind of stretch experiences within the boundaries of their organization to meet their growing need to develop leaders. Pro bono work is one way of getting outside the constraints of those boundaries—in ways that energize employees and fulfill organizational aspirations to make the world a better place.

This post first appeared in November 2016 on The Conference Board’s Human Capital Exchange blog.

The Origins and Evolution of 70-20-10

Cross Section of Chambered Nautilus ShellWhat a delight it was to read Bob Eichinger’s account of the origin and purpose of the 70-20-10 model in a blog post by Cal Wick.

I thought back to the time I had cornered Bob 10 years ago at a conference and asked him how he had arrived at the sources-of-learning percentages (70% from challenging assignments, 20% from other people, and 10% from coursework).

I got a shorter version of the story he shares in the post, but enough to go back and apply the same calculations to each replication of the original Lessons of Experience research.  Not every study produced the 70-20-10 results, but most were close. The one consistent finding:  Challenging assignments are always the #1 source of key learning experiences in managerial careers.

You can even find support for the central role of on-the-job learning in research framed as questioning the 70-20-10 model. For example, a major Conference Board – DDI study found that in companies with high-quality leadership development, 52% of leaders’ time spent on learning is on-the-job learning, 27% is learning from others, and 21% is formal learning.  Keep in mind that this study is asking a useful but different question (time spent on learning vs. key learning experiences in your career).  Yet, however you approach the question, on-the-job learning comes out on top.

Most folks have moved on from quibbling over the percentages to focusing on how organizations can best use all three major sources of learning to enhance leader development. The Conference Board-DDI report advocates for better integration of learning on the job, from others, and in the classroom.  Similarly, Bersin by Deloitte  encourages a continuous learning approach that weaves together experience, exposure, and education.

I’m totally on board with these approaches. At CCL, my colleagues and I still use the 70-20-10 meme from time to time, but we’ve also been using a different phrase:  putting experience at the center of talent management. It’s an approach that emphasizes the pivotal role of challenging assignments in attracting, developing, and retaining talent—and at the same time, highlights how the power of on-the-job experience is enhanced when surrounded by developmental relationships and formal learning opportunities.

I agree with what Cal points out in his post:  that the value of 70-20-10 was its ability to “open our eyes to learning that is happening all the time.” It makes me wonder, what am I still blind to when it comes to experience-driven development?

Choosing a Developmental Assignment

sign-post-hard-choices-280x156What are all the factors that you should consider in matching one of your direct reports with a developmental assignment?

That’s the question I want leaders to ponder as they work in small groups to review the case of a manager who needs to decide which of three assignments would be best for developing a particular employee. The case describes the employee’s current job and responsibilities as well as her strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

Two of the potential assignments are temporary assignments (a task force assignment and a special project); the other assignment is a job move. The group has to decide which assignment they would recommend the manager choose for the employee.

Over the years I’ve used this case numerous time and have found that all three assignments are about equally likely to be recommended by a group. None of the assignments are clearly “better” than the others.  An argument can be made for choosing each one.

As groups describe how they arrived at their decision, they almost always consider three important factors:

  • In what ways would the assignment provide the opportunity to practice and improve a skill that the employee needs to develop?
  • How much of a risk would the organization be taking by putting the employee in what is clearly a stretch assignment? Risk is typically assessed in terms of how much the overall success of the endeavor (i.e., the task force, the special project, or the work responsibilities in the new job) would depend on the performance of the employee.
  • Would the assignment take advantage of some of the employee’s strengths? Individuals can be more effective in a stretch assignment if they have strengths to readily apply to the work. In fact, this can mitigate some of the risk.

And many of the groups point out two other factors that they wanted to consider in their deliberations, but about which the case provided no information:

  • How much coaching and support would the employee likely receive from the people she would be working with in the assignment?
  • Which assignment would be most motivating to the employee?

CVDL_feat_img_sub_extraLast week I discussed the case with folks who dug even deeper and offered more insights about the complexities of matching individuals and assignments for development. Students in Benedictine University’s Values-Driven Leadership doctoral program surfaced additional questions that the manager should consider:

  • If the employee takes on one of the temporary assignments or the new job, what would be the impact on others in my workgroup?
  • How much personal risk would I be taking on by giving the employee each of these assignments (or recommending her to others)?
  • How could the risk inherent in the assignment be mitigated? A number of the students were attracted to the potential pay-off of the riskiest assignment (the job move), which sparked ideas for creative ways to mitigate the downsides of this assignment, including redesigning the job and strengthening support from others during the transition.

Working with these talented students brought the case alive and reminded me that using challenging assignment for development is complicated. It also reminded me of the power of conversations with colleagues for surfacing our assumptions, getting a broader view, and finding new ways forward. Many thanks to you Cohort 3!

Talent to Win

Scoring the winning points at a basketball gameA big story-line in men’s college basketball this year is the outstanding crop of seniors who are leading top-ranked teams.

If you don’t follow college basketball, you might be thinking, “of course a team with experienced players at the helm should have the edge.” But that hasn’t been the case in recent years. The accolades have gone to the so-called “one-and-done” freshmen—those players who are talented enough to begin playing at the professional level right out of high school but instead play one year at the college level until they meet the minimum requirements for the NBA draft. Last year’s national championship team had three such freshmen in their starting line-up. In contrast, the four teams remaining in this year’s tournament are senior-dominated.

To those who make a living analyzing college sports, this “year of the senior” is an anomaly—a talented incoming freshman class is expected to once again make a big impact. But I’ve enjoyed this season of four-year players coming into their own. An article by sports writer Nicole Auerbach helped me articulate why it feels so satisfying:

  • Fans love seeing the players on their teams grow and develop. I admit that I have yelled at some of these seniors early in their careers (well, yelled at their image on my TV) for missing critical free throws or making careless passes that led to turnovers. Seeing them put in the hard work that enhanced their performance over time makes these seniors, in my mind, especially deserving of the success they are achieving.
  • We admire the level of maturity displayed by seasoned players. Sometimes I can’t believe these are young men in their early twenties. They are not only developing their craft, but developing as people. As Villanova coach Jay Wright said, “You watch them start thinking about their teammates, the program, and not just themselves. It’s my favorite part of coaching.” Maturation is a slow process and adversity plays a role in it. Kansas senior Perry Ellis explained it this way, “I benefitted so much from the ups and downs because I learned so much about myself as a person and as a player. When you are not playing well, there’s still things you can do and learn how to fight through that and get through it.”
  • We enjoy watching players who are having fun. Emotions are contagious. Winning games certainly contributes to fun, but there’s something about the confidence and broader perspective that these seniors have gained that allow them to more fully enjoy the sport itself, their teammates, and this time in their lives.

Are there insights here for growing leadership talent? I’ll share some of my own (and encourage you to do the same):

  • Some people have the raw talent to move quickly to the next level of accomplishment in their career track. It’s pretty easy to identify this caliber of professional talent. But organizations can benefit from investing in motivated people who—with more practice, experience, and coaching—can also perform at the highest levels. Do we do enough to identify these seeds of potential in people?
  • A lot of what makes leaders effective requires maturation—the development of more complex and less egocentric ways of making sense of oneself and the world. To support maturation, organizations need to keep individuals in challenging jobs long enough for them to experience the ups and downs, to hone skills and see the bigger picture, to master the challenges and confidently lead others through them. Do we move our talented people too fast?
  • There’s satisfaction in seeing people learn and grow. Certainly bosses, coaches, and mentors who are directly working to develop others experience that satisfaction. But don’t people feel more committed to an organization when they look around and see continuous learning everywhere? We are quick to point out high performance, but do we do enough to make employee development visible in the organization?

Sure, the world of high-profile college sports might have little in common with our own organizations. But at the end of the day, we all face the human resource challenge of attracting the occasional ready-made star and growing the rest.

In Their Own Words

Key Events in Executives' Lives cover2Last week I pulled out my well-worn copy of Key Events in Executives’ Lives to revisit some of the original data that formed the basis of The Lessons of Experience book. Key Events is a technical report full of data summaries—certainly not something one would read from cover to cover. But the report was perfect for me because I was on a mission to combine information from various research projects so that I could confidently say what people are more likely to learn from “start from scratch” assignments. These links between particular types of stretch experiences and lessons learned are especially useful for people who want to be more intentional about using on-the-job experiences for leader development.

Although I got what I needed from looking at a summary bar chart, I found myself drawn into reading the illustrative quotes from research participants, for example,

  • I learned to take risks on people and to keep my cool as a leader. I learned the importance of a leader’s ceremonial role, how to manage a large team harmoniously, and the importance of a company culture.
  • When hiring, if you can’t get experience, go for intelligence, drive, interest. They will learn from mistakes.
  • I learned patience in explaining circumstances, keeping people busy to keep friction down, and the importance of pitching in.

These snippets from interviews added a layer of meaning beyond the statistic that informed my original quest (e.g., in 32% of the start from scratch experiences, a “direct and motivate employees” lesson was reported). I found myself connecting them to my own experiences—a co-worker who I have always admired for her ability to keep her cool; whether it seemed true from my own experience that intelligence, drive, and interest predicted one’s ability to learn from mistakes; the time I learned to be more patient.

It reminded me to share this advice as part of my summary about the patterns of lessons learned from various stretch assignments: You should interview folks in your own organization who have had similar experiences and capture the lessons learned—in their own words—to share with people taking on stretch assignments. It simply will make it more real. Easier to relate to their current context. And with greater confidence that they can learn these things, too.

The Power of Shared Experience

Georgia gang 2015Last month I gathered in Athens, Georgia with thirteen of my former fellow graduate students to reconnect, reminisce, and enjoy each other’s company again. One thing we reflected on was the challenges and difficulties of getting through graduate school and how grateful we were to have gone through that experience with colleagues who we could lean on, learn from, and laugh with. It reminded me that one of the ways to maximize learning from challenging experiences is to connect with others who are on the same journey.

What’s happening in these shared journeys that stimulates learning?

  • We develop a sense of camaraderie that opens us up to sharing what we really think and feel.
  • We are more likely to seek and to give advice with those whom we know are dealing with the exact same challenges that we are facing.
  • It’s easier to learn from someone else’s experience if that experience is very similar to our own.
  • We empathize with others whose “shoes we are in.” Empathy breeds support and encouragement.
  • Seeing other people like us succeed boosts our own beliefs that we can succeed, too. So we work harder.

Organizations recognize the power of shared experience and often work to connect people who are facing similar challenges, for example,

  • Communities of practice bring together individuals working in the same domain to share experiences, learn from one another, and create new knowledge. A great example is CompanyCommand, an online peer-to-peer collaborative of Army company commanders.
  • Development programs designed for specific roles create a space for peer-to-peer learning. In evaluating a leadership program for school superintendents, I found that individuals learned as much from their fellow participants as they did from the “experts.”
  • Affinity groups provide forums for employees with a common social identity (e.g., women, African-Americans, LGBT) to connect, share experiences, and work together to create a more inclusive workplace.

There’s no doubt that one learns a great deal from difference—from people in other functions or careers, from those whose life experiences are far from our own, from colleagues whose job challenges are different. Difference can challenge our thinking, offer untapped sources of wisdom, and stimulate innovation. But I can also make the case for the power of similarity—the ease of connection, sharing, and support among those whose current experiences reflect our own. What I learned in Athens was that the connection, sharing, and support can last well beyond the joint experience. Go Dawgs!


Leader Development: Can We Make It Go Faster?

speed2A question that I regularly hear from those responsible for leader development in organization is this: How can we accelerate the development of leaders?

When I dig underneath that question, I often hear an assumption that there is something yet to discover about development—a new element that, if added to the mix, will speed up the process.

No one needs to wait for new discoveries to achieve faster results. There’s a great deal already known about human learning and development, for example, the importance of stretch assignments, learning goals, developmental relationships, and regular feedback.

However, as we’ve examined best practices in experience-driven leader development, three key principles stand out about effective strategies to accelerate development:

  1. Customize learning experiences. Instead of sending everyone through the same courses, job rotations, or coaching initiatives, tailor learning experiences to target each leader’s development needs. Customization streamlines development for the individual, removing unnecessary elements and thus speeding it up. For example, at GE, a long-time user of job rotation programs to develop employees, they are experimenting with individualized rotations in the Corporate Leadership Staff program. Cross-functional assignments are selected according to the development needs of the individual. Length of assignments are also customized.
  2. Integrate work and learning. Don’t think of learning as being apart from work, but rather a natural part of work. More intentionally weaving the two together creates synergies and speeds up each one. To accelerate the development of leaders for their fastest-growing markets, Microsoft implemented a program that immerses participants in temporary assignments at corporate headquarters. The projects are real work that benefits from the knowledge participants bring from the field while broadening their perspective and network of relationships.
  3. Create concentrated periods of learning. Although learning is an ongoing, daily process, development can speed up when there are periods of focused learning. Concentrated learning is characterized by clear development intentions and multiple tactics to realize those intentions. IBM’s Corporate Service Corps is an intense six-month experience to develop socially responsible global leaders. It combines virtual training and team-building, 30 days in a developing country delivering consulting services with the team, and sharing lessons learned with colleagues back home.

Here’s the caveat: Although these strategies can accelerate development, let’s be realistic and perhaps even cautious. Becoming an expert at complex leadership tasks takes practice over time and across many situations. And there are downsides to pushing the gas pedal too hard, like moving people from assignment to assignment without enough time to experience the consequences of their actions or burning them out. Perhaps the growing edge of practice is a deeper understanding of how to best pace interventions that aspire to speed up the natural leader development that is happening all the time.

This post first appeared on The Conference Board’s Human Capital Exchange.


Experience-Driven Formal Development Programs

SIOP2015Over the years, I’ve picked up a number of tactics for getting the most out of participating in professional conferences. One tactic is to organize conference sessions on topics you want to learn more about and invite people doing interesting work related to that topic to participate. In other words, create a session you can’t wait to attend, which is exactly what I did for the recent SIOP conference in Philadelphia (Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology).

Since I was intrigued with this notion of enhancing the impact of formal development programs by making them a force for experience-driven learning, I invited five colleagues who were designing and delivering such programs to share their work and insights:

  • Vicki Tardino talked about Boeing’s program for executives who have just moved into director-level jobs and how the program puts the transition experience at the center, surrounding it with tools and supporting roles to maximize learning from that experience.
  • Laura Ann Preston-Dayne focused on Kelly Services’ program to develop a community of “solutionaires” (senior consultants who can design creative talent solutions for clients’ complex workforce issues) via formal learning events and hands-on skill building with a sponsor.
  • Vicki Flaherty described IBM’s program to develop top MBA graduates on an accelerated path to general management positions—a program that integrates structured job rotations, coaching and mentoring, and training opportunities.
  • Lyndon Rego shared insights from a program CCL co-designed for middle-level managers in the rapidly changing microfinance environment in India and the learn-apply-teach approach that serves as the foundation of the program.
  • Erica Desrosiers described the key design elements in Walmart’s formal programs to accelerate the readiness of their top talent for new roles, including an emphasis on leaders developing leaders and opportunities to apply knowledge gained in the classroom to real experiences in the field.

Here are some key ideas I took away from the session—ideas about how to make formal development programs more impactful:

  • Build the program around people experiencing the same challenging assignment. We often call a group of people attending the same program a “cohort,” assuming that the shared program experience itself will band them together as a learning community. And it does to some extent. But when you connect people who are dealing with similar on-the-job challenges, like moving to a director-level job at Boeing or working as a microfinance middle manager in the rural part of a developing country, you up the developmental power of the experience. People are not just learning from their own experience, they are learning from each other’s experiences. They are able to bring different perspectives to bear on shared problems. And they find comfort and confidence in knowing that they are not alone, that others struggle with the same challenges, and that they now have access to companions on the same journey.
  • Make use of well-known methods for integrating learning and doing. For example, the sponsors in Kelly’s program employ an apprenticeship approach, building skills in participants by observing and coaching them as they do work side-by-side. Building on the notion that individuals deepen their own learning by teaching others, the program for microfinance managers requires participants to teach program content to their own staff members and together discovering ways to apply it in their own context. And Walmart’s Leadership Academy has intensified what I would label the “educational field trip” by making these experiences both practice fields for trying out new techniques and real work that benefits the organization.
  • Provide participants valuable experiences that are often hard to get. IBM’s program rotates participants through three key assignments to give them breadth of experience and to target each participant’s development needs. Several of the programs provide the opportunity to have real conversations and interactions with senior executives (rather than just see the “public” face of these executives). And it is important to make sure the program provides what formal coursework has often uniquely offered participants: the experience of stepping back, taking a deeper look at oneself, reflecting in the midst of new experiences, and being more aware of what and how one is learning.

Many thanks to the session participants (and audience members who asked great questions). To learn more, you can access their presentation slides here.

I’m still intrigued and would love to hear about your own efforts to design and implement more experience-driven approaches to formal development programs.

Short-Term Assignments, Long-Term Success

This article was originally posted on the Center for Creative Leadership’s Leading Effectively blog.

hourglassMany years ago as a young professional at CCL, I had a special six-month assignment as “assistant to the president.” I was the second person to serve in the role. The president had created the role to serve multiple purposes—to have someone dedicated to helping him with special projects, to keep him connected to those of us doing the on-the-ground work of the organization, and to provide a learning experience for the person taking on the role.

And it definitely was a learning experience. I got to see how things worked at the executive level of the organization, worked on major cross-functional projects for the first time, and learned strategies for dealing with the stress of tight deadlines and unexpected requests that would throw my plans for the day into disarray.  It was an experience whose lessons I drew on later when I took on managerial responsibilities myself.

I had not thought about that assignment in a long time. What brought it to mind was our recent efforts to learn more about what organizations are doing to better use experience to develop leadership talent.  Short-term stretch assignments are one of key development strategies that emerged. It’s simply not practical to rely on job moves to get individuals the variety of experiences they need to develop a broad repertoire of leadership skills.

Yet it was not just any type of short-term assignment that these organizations created. They targeted three types:

  • Cross-functional. Organizations need leaders who understand the whole business, the different perspectives that various functions and units bring to the work, and how to manage and integrate those differences. To develop such leaders, you have to get them out of their silos. If you are a high-potential manager at SAP, you get a notice every six months with a listing of special project assignments across the organization. If you and your manager agree that one of them is just what you need to move forward on one of your development goals, you can apply for that assignment. You may or may not get it because competition for some assignments is high. If you get the assignment, you temporarily leave your position and work fulltime for six months in some other part of the organization.
  • Strategic. Organizations also need leaders who can look to the future, dig into complex emerging issues, and see ways forward. To develop such leaders, you have to get them out of day-to-day operations. If you’ve been doing stellar work at GlaxoSmithKline, you could get the opportunity to go to corporate headquarters in London  and work with a team of 2-3 other people like yourself (but from different parts of the organization) to examine and develop recommendations for dealing with a strategic issue.
  • Global. And organizations need leaders who understand cultural differences and can work with people around the globe. To develop such leaders, you have to get them out of their country.  If you work at IBM, you can apply to participate in their Corporate Service Corps. If you are lucky enough to get a slot in the program, you’ll join a team of up to 15 IBMers from around the world and travel to a developing country where you’ll do pro bono work for a small business or a nonprofit group to improve their organization.

These examples of short-term assignments are major organizational initiatives. They are often reserved for people who are expected to move up in the organization and take on broader leadership responsibilities.

However, we also found examples of short-term assignments that were on a more local scale and open to anyone who wanted to expand their leadership capabilities. Assignments that gave individual contributors in the organization a taste for supervisory work. Opportunities to shape an assignment that allowed people to spend 10% of their time in another function. Project posting systems that helped people find assignments outside their typical work.

One thing stood out about these efforts to create more short-term developmental assignments: if you took one of these assignments, you were not going to be left on your own to make of it what you could.  Because these organizations want to maximize their investment, they surround the experience with the things needed to stimulate and focus your learning—learning goals, coaches, peer networks, formal courses, feedback, and tools for reflection.

Short-term assignments fill an important niche. They provide the opportunity to do real work outside of your current context without having to commit to a job move (and all the upheavals that entails).  Is your organization finding ways to create these types of opportunities?  What examples, experiences, and insights do you have to share?

A Dark Side to Stretch Assignments

Reading a couple research articles got me thinking deeper about something Paul Yost wrote last year. He described a stretch assignment as when you are excited and scared at the very same time.storm

The two articles (see references below) take a serious look at the dark side of stretch assignments. Both articles were published in 2014 in top peer-reviewed journals in our field by entirely different research teams. Both made use of an instrument I had a hand in developing, the Job Challenge Profile (potential blogger bias alert!). They both grounded their research in transactional stress theory—a theory I had become a fan of when I first read Lazarus and Folkman’s book Stress, Appraisal, and Coping back in 1985.

At that time, I was focused on how job challenges (like influencing without authority or starting something new) stimulated on-the-job learning, but I was also interested in the manager’s affective reactions to these challenges. I was well aware that managers experience both positive and negative emotions as they encounter these challenges. Somewhere along the way, this part of the equation drifted into the background of my work. These studies brought back into focus the negative emotions that stretch assignments can generate.

Here are the overall findings from the two studies:

  • In a sample of early-career managers, Yuntao Dong, Myeong-Gu Seo, and Kathryn Bartol found that experiencing development job challenges can increase managers’ pleasant feelings (e.g., excitement, enthusiasm, and satisfaction) which, in turn, increase their advancement potential and decrease their intent to leave their current job. These same job challenges can simultaneously increase negative feelings (e.g., anger, nervousness, and disappointment) which, in turn, decrease advancement potential.  But there’s another twist: job challenges were related to increased turnover intentions only for those low on emotional intelligence (i.e., the ability to detect, respond to, and manage emotions). The researchers argue that emotional intelligence can prevent managers’ unpleasant feelings from developing into intentions to leave their job.
  • In a sample of junior and mid-level managers, Stephen Courtright, Amy Colbert, and Daejeong Choi found that experiencing developmental job challenges was associated with higher work engagement which, in turn, was associated with higher levels of transformational leadership behaviors.  However, experiencing developmental job challenges was also associated with higher emotional exhaustion which, in turn, was associated with high levels of laissez-faire leadership behaviors.  The extra twist in this study: this indirect relationship between job challenges and laissez-faire leadership behaviors held only for those managers with low leadership self-efficacy (i.e., the managers’ perception of their ability to effectively perform the functions of a leadership role).

There’s a lot in these studies; for now, here are some of my take-aways:

Stretch assignments can produce the very opposite of what proponents of them intend. It is useful to be reminded that the same job experiences that can stimulate on-the-job learning can contribute to a wide range of other outcomes. Increasing employee engagement and keeping talented people in the organization are often cited as reasons (in addition to development) for giving stretch assignments. Yet we shouldn’t ignore the potential negative stress and exhaustion that can lead to inaction and avoidance of leadership responsibilities, doubts from others about one’s potential, and turnover.

The negative consequences of stretch assignment can be moderated. The studies cited point to two important tools that managers can make use of in the midst of a stretch assignment to lessen negative outcomes: emotional regulation and self-efficacy. Certainly, organizations can look for these qualities in individuals when selecting people for stretch assignments. They can also make it easier to enact these qualities during stretch assignments by making their salience more apparent and providing the social support that strengthens them.

The mix of excited and scared matters. I’m stimulated to pay more attention to that experience of being excited and scared at the same time when facing a challenge.  What’s the ideal balance of these positive and negative feelings? For me, I’m thinking 75% excited and 25% scared. What do you think?

Dong, Y., Seo, M., Bartol, K.M. (2014). No pain, no gain: An affect-based model of developmental job experience and the buffering effects of emotional intelligence.  Academy of Management Journal, 57, 1056-1077.

Courtright, S.H., Colbert, A.E., & Choi, D. (2014). Fired up or burned out? How developmental challenge differentially impacts leader behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99, 681-696.