Nina Spencer

Promises, Promises: Moving Beyond the Lip Service of Continuous Improvement

What's it going to be? "No time's a good time" or, "There's no time like the present"? Usually when someone says "something happened to a friend of a friend of mine", we suspect they're talking about themselves or about some organizational myth—like an urban myth but, I really do have something to share that happened to a friend of a friend of mine!

For the sake of creating an image of a real person let's call this person Pat. Pat is very talented in her professional skills and abilities. The kind of person who'll do well where ever she goes and, even if there was an organizational downsizing, she'd always land on her feet, in her next peach of a job! Well Pat was thrilled to start with a very prestigious and well respected organization, 18 months ago—the job was a terrific fit for her specialized skills.

Pat took her job search seriously. She embraced the thinking that she worked for herself—William Bridges idea of "Me Inc."—and that she wanted to "partner" with an employer that fit her sense of organizational goals and integrity. She diligently researched the company she decided to "go" with, making sure she clearly understood what they stood for in terms of salary, benefits, promotion, job security, atmosphere, communications, job satisfaction and, most importantly—to her—continuous personal/professional development. Well, she found that "perfect" job 18 months ago. The biggest promise of all was that they would definitely support her desire to continuously upgrade her skills so that she could make an even greater contribution to the company.

Three months went by, then six, nine, twelve, and now eighteen. At each quarter Pat would politely yet assertively ask their director, "So what about that training that we all agree I should take?". Always the response was the same, "Oh we do want you to go on that, and you know how much we champion continuous improvement, but we have to back burner that right now—it's such a busy time—we can't afford to have you gone right now." So Pat waited and waited and waited.

Perhaps you feel Pat should have taken a more assertive role—even one of ultimatum—but let's be honest here—if you loved the job and were honoured to be part of a well respected company, wouldn't you keep making excuses for them for awhile? Wouldn't you be careful about your image when you still felt like the "new kid on the block"? Pat did. So she "put up and shut up" for months, yet all the time she felt duped and taken advantage of. I suppose it would be like thinking you're marrying into a great family only to discover that your relatives are shallow and untrustworthy! Whenever we join an organization, we buy into the corporate culture. The first blush of "love" of our new organization can make us overlook a lot of displeasing personality traits but, as time passes, sometimes we are rudely awakened to the fatal flaws, that were probably always there but didn't want to see!

At the 12 month mark Pat was fidgety and thinking about leaving but, it was an idle, incubating sort of thinking. One day Pat mentioned this outloud to a trustworthy colleague. A manager accidentally overheard her and rushed to her side begging her to reconsider, "We wouldn't want to lose you! You're such a good worker!"

Getting positive and complimentary feedback on how well respected your work is, is a nice shot in the arm. The reality is that most of us don't get enough of it but, in some cases, it's just not enough and can sound like "blah, blah, blah" because of the other empty promises and chronic procrastination.

As a friend and colleague of mine puts it, "What's the point of promising things at the point of hiring and then not delivering? It's ‘job inflation!'." And then the organization wonders why their prized young pups quit for greener pastures.

If you find yourself in such a predicament, or if you recognize your part in this kind of scenario, from a management perspective, what can you do? Well all of life, yes even work life, is a series of choices. No matter what you can think of, if there's dilemma in it for you, it comes down to one of four choices: Love It, Leave it, Change it (or at least the way you think about it), or Stay and Hate it! We all know a person or two who have picked "Stay and Hate it" because they're the ones who bellyache and spread their negative energy throughout the office hoping to sign up new recruits for their "club"! Over the years, I've come to call these people the "Quit and Stayeds" because, somewhere along the line, they decided to emotionally quit but never bothered to physically execute that quitting! The fewer "Quit and Stayeds" an organization has, the better. Even one or two in a department can have a powerful negative affect on productivity and morale.

If you are the employee who keeps being promised formal professional development but it never quite seems to be the right time, you can:

  1. Pray for a new director or manager—as cynical as this sounds, organizational structure changes so rapidly at times that you could hold on and hold out for someone with a more proactive, money where their mouth is, approach to training and development—this really has worked out for some people!
  2. Develop greater and greater assertive communications skills—some people think that being a masterful assertive communicator means that you're a petulant bully that bulldozes for what you want no matter how it impacts another. The people who really know the power of masterful assertive communications know that learning how to be politely persistent, with just the right tone and the thoughtfully chosen "right" words yields a higher probability of getting the results you want, than using another, defensive, whiny, victimy, or righteous approach.
  3. Explore your organization's performance appraisal system. If your organization is still using the static, and now somewhat antiquated approach of a yearly review (based on a few weeks sample of your work near the review date) you'll have to wait until that time. When that time comes, and if your system provides you the opportunity to meet with the appraiser to give your feedback about your review, be sure to ask for coaching, mentoring and goal setting guidance to make a commitment to actual time and place for the desired training in the next appraisal year. Make sure you put it in writing in your response to your report and then be sure to periodically refer to it. There have been many times in my life, personally and professionally, where I've found that polite persistence pays.
  4. If your organizaton uses a more dynamic and modern approach to appraising your performance, through a structured performance management system, be sure to bring up your desire to "take" the agreed in principle training, in the regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings. Increase the influence you may have in these meetings, getting the results you want—the training—by offering up specific dates where there may be a bit of a ‘slow" time in your schedule". Couple that with actual dates, offerings and costs of the training you wish to attend. In other words YOU do all the leg work and information gathering and make it easier for them to say "YES!"! Be sure to include a concrete list of all the benefits the origanization will reap from you doing this training—the ole "WII-FT"—what's in it for them?
  5. If you really want it bad enough, and if you don't want to leave the company, and you don't want to be a corporate vampire and join the ranks of the "Quit and Stayeds", and you don't want to feel victimized anymore about not getting the training that was promised to you... your last resort is to buy the training yourself, with your own money, for your own professional development reasons and do it on your own time. Yes it may be your money, but it's your professional growth and you take your wisdom with you, and all that you learn along the way, everywhere you go. You know the saying... "No matter where you go... there you are!" In a dissatisfying employment situation, this may be the ultimate personal empowerment statement that you can make to your employer regarding the fact that you've embraced the thinking of "Me Inc." (the idea that you really work for yourself even if you do actually have an "employer").

Once along time ago I too had this experience and in the end I chose the option I just outlined in #5. I spent $795 of my own money to take an advanced presentations skills weekend immersion workshop. This kind of training wasn't accepted under the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and my manager couldn't understand why I wanted this training—she thought I was already good enough and couldn't justify the expense. At first it really burned me because I knew that my employer, and my workshop participants. would be the major benefactors of what I learned, but then I remembered that one day I'd probably move on, which I did, and I will STILL have the wisdom of what I'd learned and carry it with me forevermore. Not only that, I realized, in the meantime, I could "practice" what I'd learned right there with my current employer—they were my first guinea pigs!

In the end, months later, at the end of the budget year I had this "brilliantly scathing idea". I mustered up all the chutzpah I could find and went to my manager and said,

"Remember that professional development workshop I took in the spring, and paid for myself because I so badly wanted to do it? Well, now that it's end of year, I can clearly and steadily look you in the eye and tell you how my workshops have improved and how my participants (our clients!) have benefited from what I've learned and demonstrated. If there's any money left over in the budget, and you agree that he organization has benefitted from this training I took, would you now consider supporting this training and reimburse me for my workshop tuition? What do you think she said? YES! I was reimbursed. And now for another saying we all know so well, "If you don't ask... you don't get!".

And as for Pat... she's still deciding will it be "door number one, door number two, or door number three!". I have a hunch that she'll decide to leave in the end and she'll be just fine—and the employer will have let a "good one" get away!