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For Career Development, Employees Need to Step Back to Spring Forward

Whitney Johnson

Thinker, Writer, Speaker, Advisor, Doer

A slingshot generates a lot of energy with the pullback that propels an object forward. I want people to envision that kind of forward propulsion for their career development, too. Instead of making linear and incremental progress on the largely outmoded slow climb up the career ladder, a professional step back can position people for an exponential explosion of growth. Rapid, even exponential development, of human resources fuels organizations.

Recently, author and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain was a guest on my Disrupt Yourself podcast. A long-time advocate of the value of the internet, Shlain admits that she never envisioned what we see today: people ignoring each other as they focus on their smartphones. To combat this reality, Shlain and her family step back one day a week by taking a "tech Shabbat." They unplug from their devices to recharge as individuals and a family. They’ve been doing it for a decade. It allows them to be "really present with each other" and facilitates "reflection and big-picture thinking." Creativity and productivity the other six days of the week are enhanced by the rest, refresh and reset.

Interval training is a comparable strategy for physical fitness and conditioning. Flat-out exercise interspersed with brief periods of lower-intensity exertion, like Shlain’s tech Shabbat, demonstrates at a micro level the advantages a step back—the lower-intensity period in the exercise analogy—can bring to a career at the macro level.

Simply put, no one can perform their best when they’re constantly overexerting themselves, moving forward at a speed that’s difficult to maintain and accelerate. However, a slow-down period, such as a step back or sideways in a career, can free up some of the mental and physical energy required to stay afloat in a high-intensity environment, thus providing a springboard of new experiences, learning and growth.

Unfortunately, most people still find such moves counterintuitive. Our default belief is that progress always means moving up or forward. HR professionals can contribute to organizational growth by incorporating steps back as part of a talent development strategy. Here are some ideas to consider:

Be Open to the Unconventional

To keep pace—much less lead the pack—in a world of rapid change and innovation, organizations can’t limit themselves to positioning employees based solely on their education or prior experience. What an individual has done in the past is not the only predictor of what they might do—or what you might need them to do—in the future. They may contribute more to your organization by learning an entirely new discipline. Allow, encourage and facilitate people to "start over" in unconventional ways. If an employee shows interest in a department or field they have no prior experience in, give them an opportunity to try it out, especially if they’ve already proven themselves to be a hard worker in another discipline.

Make Ongoing Training and Learning a Top Priority

The human brain functions best when challenged. Feel-good chemicals like dopamine lubricate the mental works as we learn, and learning contributes to engagement and productivity. It may seem that people will do their best work when they’ve fully mastered its requirements; instead, they often stagnate from boredom and disengage as they exhaust the learning curve associated with their role. A mental "Shabbat" to refresh and reset their brains is needed? for most people every three to four years. All employees need avenues to continually update their skills with emerging technologies.

Invest in Incentives for the Step Back

Most people feel that their next role should involve a step up in compensation. But steps back or sideways for growth don’t readily accommodate that expectation. It may not be possible to financially incentivize them, which calls for creative thinking. Is there a specific learning opportunity associated with a step back? Can an employee anticipate the opportunity to work on a desirable project or with a senior employee as a mentor? What can HR highlight as the advantages of a step back? This requires forethought and conversations with individuals about their desired career trajectory. Know what motivates them.

Some employees will envision and embrace a step back or sideways career strategy for themselves and will need help from HR to bring it to fruition. Others may need the vision to come from HR, and a nudge in a new direction. Recognizing the growth potential for organizations when we focus on the growth potential of individuals should guide us in making the development of our valuable human resources our top priority.

Image via Creative Commons

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