Category Archives: Challenging Assignments

How the Best Development Experiences Can Produce the Worst Learning Outcomes

Top talent. Great development opportunity. High expectations for learning. It’s a combination that should work—but all too often, outcomes fall short.

Expectations for learning are not met. Even if the person delivers business results, he or she doesn’t learn or develop as much as desired—leaving a skills gap yet to be filled.

How can something so right go so wrong?

While failure to learn is not inevitable, it is common, in spite of mapping out a “great” development experience. In hindsight, we might point to any number of reasons:

  • “The person wasn’t as good as we thought.”
  • “It was the wrong experience or it wasn’t structured properly.”
  • “Learning expectations were not clearly communicated.”
  • “The person needed more or different support than we provided.”

While any of these may be true for a given experience, here is an alternative explanation:

Great development experiences can threaten one’s track record of success.

Great development experiences push people out of their comfort zones. The best experiences place people into situations where they face higher performance demands than they have faced in the past. They are working in situations that are unfamiliar.

Stated simply, great development experiences involve significant performance challenges. The problem?

When people are concerned that they will fail, they don’t focus on learning.

When risk and failure are front-and-center, people often try to get the job done by using what they already know. Rather than experimenting with new ideas and approaches that may not work, they will try to succeed by leveraging what has worked in the past.

You might be thinking, “Our top performers are better learners.”

Maybe, but research suggests that when people face a significant challenge or “threat,” they often respond in rigid ways—narrowing their focus to the problems at hand, and seeking solutions based on how they have approached similar situations in the past.

This means that the very challenges that you provide to spark learning can set up a dynamic that inhibits learning. A colleague described this extreme example of an individual who actively avoided learning from a development experience because he was worried about failure:

“This high potential leader was given an assignment to lead an important and complex project. The idea, not very well articulated to him, was that he needed to build project management skills. The high potential knew that he didn’t have the necessary skills. Not wanting to fail, he promptly delegated the project management tasks to a strong project manager on his team.”

It’s tempting to dismiss the above example as extreme, or to simply blame the high potential’s manager for not clarifying learning expectations in this situation. But I think this is a great example of how a performance mindset can drive out a learning mindset.

By definition, learning means risk—trying out new ways of thinking or taking a new course of action that may fail. If we don’t intentionally support and foster a learning mindset, the performance culture in most organizations will drive it out. The threat of visible failure will override the learning agenda. The talent and the organization may get results in the short term, but over time both are likely to suffer.

What can be done, then, to deliver on learning expectations from development experiences?

Get people thinking about how to learn more, faster.

First, let people know why experience-driven learning matters. Why developmental experiences are expected and valued. Why a learning mindset must augment the performance mindset.

Then, teach people how to approach their development experiences with a learning mindset. Here are just a few questions to consider using with top talent who are entering challenging development experiences:

  • In what ways will this experience challenge me?
  • What am I going to learn from this experience?
  • What risks might I face in taking on this experience?
  • What learning can I get from this experience that will help me achieve my long-term goals?

When we foster a learning mindset with top talent, they will get the most out their developmental experiences. Without it, performance pressure will likely win the day and important development needs will be left far behind.