Losing Sight of the Individual in Group Development Programs

I often come across articles focused on development efforts for women and millennials. These two demographics – gender and age – are treated as key considerations in employee development program design. The thought seems to be that if organizations could only figure out how to develop women and young professionals, they could solve myriad talent woes from homogeneous leadership teams to high potential retention. While there is value in addressing the unique needs of demographic groups (I’ve blogged about developing women leaders in the past), by focusing solely on demographics we are missing individual characteristics that should be examined when investing in development efforts.

When building and delivering development programs, organizations may find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, individual interests, motivators, strengths, and weaknesses are simply too varied to apply a one-size-fits-all development approach. On the other hand, it is impractical to employ unique development techniques for individual employees and doing so would ignore the common challenges they may face based on shared characteristics, such as age and gender.

Luckily, there is a middle ground that will lead to more effective development programs for women and millennials, along with any other specific group. In addition to incorporating standard elements for all participants, employee development programs should also include measures of individual characteristics. When used at the beginning of a program, these measures – whether they be interest surveys, assessments of values, strengths, and derailers, or multi-rater feedback instruments – provide useful insight in multiple areas.

  • Setting appropriate development goals: Personality assessments and multi-rater feedback tools will help program participants identify strengths to leverage and blind spots or performance risks that may hinder their effectiveness.
  • Designing valuable development activities: Understanding participants’ strengths and weaknesses will help program designers build valuable development electives. For instance, a participant who is low Interpersonal Sensitivity may benefit from activities focused on gaining buy-in and influencing others. A participant who is high Interpersonal Sensitivity may be better served by activities designed to improve conflict management capabilities.
  • Designing engaging development activities: Understanding participants’ interests and values ensures the activities offered throughout the program will be motivating and rewarding. For instance, a participant with a high Affiliation value may look for activities that allow for collaboration whereas a participant with a high Power value may be more engaged in activities that include a competitive element.
  • Evaluating program effectiveness: Including individual needs in program design and delivery provides additional criteria for program evaluation. In addition to looking at group-level results over time (e.g., representation of women in leadership, retention and promotion of young high-potentials), individual effects (e.g., improvements in performance, relationships, and career pathing) can be measured.

What experiences have you had with development programs designed for specific demographic groups? Please comment with your thoughts and lessons learned!