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5 reasons employees hate individual development plans

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I once had a coaching client confide to me that professional development just “wasn’t his thing.” His point: some people don’t see the value in the extra effort required for formalized self-improvement activities at work. This individual was a highly educated, hard-working and effective professional; I wouldn’t characterize him as a slacker.

As you might imagine, he isn’t a big fan of individual development plans, or IDPs. Many companies have a formal process for professional development and use IDPs to facilitate that process. Fellow SmartBlog on Leadership contributor Dan McCarthy defines an IDP as such: “a tool that helps facilitate employee development. It’s a two-way commitment between an employee and their manager on what they are going to do to grow.”

The IDP process can be effective when implemented properly. And yet, every year when it comes time to fill one out, people struggle to do so. Some of the struggle can be attributed to blasé attitudes like my client’s. Beyond that, the reasons people hate IDPs are more likely due to correctable external factors than an innate indifference to personal growth.

From my years as a human resources professional tasked with administering IDPs and as a corporate manager in charge of overseeing my staff’s IDPs, here are five reasons that even the most growth-oriented employees tend to roll their eyes when it’s time to complete this important professional development activity.

  1. Cumbersome paperwork. Forms that are difficult to complete demotivate even the most enthusiastic employee. I once worked for a large multinational firm whose IDP forms were unintelligible. The goals I had in mind didn’t really “fit” into any of the pre-determined slots. My work team leader did what he could to accommodate my requests, but frankly, it took some of the wind out of my sails.
  2. No variety. One of the challenges for managers is finding new goals for seasoned employees. Seriously, how many conferences or 360-degree feedback assessments can one person complete? Creativity is key to finding fresh ways to encourage professional growth. One vice president I worked with agreed to add a unique goal to a long-time team member’s IDP: flex time to support the employee’s goals in becoming a master gardener. How did this tie to company goals? The company was starting a blog that had a tie-in to vendors whom the employee was meeting during her master-gardener class time.
  3. Wrong-sized goal. If the goal is too ambitious, people will feel defeated before they start. The same is true of the opposite: if the goal feels like a “gimme”, there’s no growth. “Stretch goals” should be like a rubber band — taut enough to provide the tension necessary to move employees out of their comfort zones, not so tight that the band snaps, or so slack that it just hangs there.
  4. No fit to stage-of-life. Employees’ stage of life can sometimes affect the types of goals that will be most appealing. For example, a fresh-out-of-college employee may be willing to take on more tasks as a career-building move than, say, an employee who has recently returned to work from a lengthy illness. Caveat: it is best to let the employee decide what is “too much” or “not enough” with regards to stage-of-life issues. People have varying degrees of tolerance for factors outside their work life that will affect their willingness to take on challenges.
  5. No managerial follow-up. If an IDP is a “one and done” conversation, it’s a waste of time. The best IDP process is one that has consistent check-ins throughout the year. Ideally, the conversation will happen on a monthly basis, but even a quarterly check-in will be useful.

Not all employees are “meh” about using the IDP process. By keeping development goals fresh and unique to each employee’s needs, managers can indeed foster that two-way development dialog that IDPs were designed to encourage.

Jennifer V. Miller, managing partner of SkillSource, helps midcareer professionals strategize their next big “leap.” She is the co-author of “The Character-Based Leader,” blogs at The People Equation and tweets via @JenniferVMiller.