While “breadcrumbing”—being strung along by small reinforcements without true commitment—has been around in the dating world for a while, the idea can apply in professional contexts as well. An August 2019 BBC report says bosses may be guilty of leading employees on, rather than genuinely committing to their development. In a tight labor market, this can be the kiss of death for employee engagement and retention.
Forty-four percent of employees don’t feel they have sufficient opportunities for professional growth in their current positions, according to TINYPulse’s “2019 Employee Engagement Report: The End of Loyalty.” The company’s research has also found that people who don’t feel supported in their professional development are three times more likely to be job hunting.
But it’s not always nefarious, says Tania Luna, co-CEO of LifeLabs Learning. Employers and supervisors may have good intentions, but inexperience, work demands, or lack of resources may get in the way, she says. “It’s not like there’s someone who has this devious plan to give you just enough development that you stick around, but not enough that you’re actually productive,” she says.
But employees have a real need to feel like they’re developing their skillset, and if companies aren’t fulfilling that obligation, they will look elsewhere. Are you dealing with a boss who’s leading you on when it comes to professional development? Here’s a four-step action plan.
Assess the environment
To get an understanding of how seriously your supervisor takes employee development overall, watch how they treat their own career development, says Helen McPherson, principal consultant at management consulting firm McPherson Consulting Group. “If leaders aren’t curious about developing themselves, it’s a real indication that they don’t have a growth or learning mindset,” she says. If your supervisor isn’t learning, taking on stretch assignments, and finding other ways to grow, it’s a good sign that they either don’t know how to help your career or aren’t interested in doing so.
Understand your supervisor’s development style
Among leaders who actually carry out development activities, Rachel Cooke, founder and CEO of leadership consulting firm Lead Above Noise makes the distinction between a “compliant” and an “engaged” leader. “Broadly speaking, a performance management conversation with a compliant leader will be more one-directional with them speaking and you listening whereas, with an engaged leader, it will be more of a dialogue,” she says.
A compliant manager is checking boxes: They may tell you what they think you need and will be overly focused on process, such as ensuring forms are filled out and correspondence is formalized. An engaged manager will be more focused on what your goals are and work with you to find an individualized approach to development that will benefit both you and the company, Cooke says.
Create your plan
Before you get too upset about your company’s lack of development opportunities, you need to have an idea of how you want to grow in your profession. “I’ve had a lot of experiences where employees will complain about the lack of opportunity. And yet when you push them and say, ‘Well, what have you asked for? What have you told your leader you’re aspiring to [do]?’ You kind of get a blank stare,” Cooke says. You don’t have to have a five-year plan, but you should have a clear idea of where you want to go and what you need to develop to get there, she says.
How you proceed here depends on your manager and organization. In some cases, development is part of the culture, and both organizational leadership and managers take responsibility for it. In others, the employee may need to take matters into their own hands. Either way, you can’t be passive, Luna says. “You’ve got to be constantly thinking of yourself as almost like this entrepreneur,” she says. “[Ask yourself] ‘What’s the way for me to keep expanding my own employability?'”
Successful professional development requires regular communication between employers and employees, McPherson says. If your supervisor is only interested in speaking to you about your goals and performance around the time of your annual performance review, you are likely in an environment that doesn’t prioritize your growth.
If you’re in a situation where professional development is scarce, you need to be willing to make your plans clear and ask for what you need, whether that’s training, new assignments, or even feedback, Cooke says. Doing so requires saying, “Hey, leader, I want to get to this role in the next three years, and you have a better vantage point than I do as far as what it takes. Can you help me to understand what I need to do?” she says. Being passive will simply cause your own opportunities to languish.