Hey, managers - try listening to your team

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The Independent Online
THE PHRASE "lifelong learning" has become a mantra of the late 1990s. Chanted by employers and government alike, they say individuals need it to maintain their employability and employers need it to stay competitive. But managers today are overworked and under constant pressure to meet imminent deadlines. It is not surprising that they concentrate on their immediate tasks at the expense of developing their staff and themselves.

Moreover, many employers now expect employees to be responsible for their own career development. Managers not only cannot find time to train and develop their staff themselves, but many employers do not expect them to do so.

David Clutterbuck points out in a new book, Learning Alliances: Tapping into Talent, that managers need to "become facilitators" of learning, creating an environment where "helping to learn is a task shared among many heads, both within and outside the team, rather than assuming the whole role themselves". He adds: "This includes the potential for the team to have an active role in helping the manager to learn."

We all have the potential to learn from everyone around us at work. Clutterbuck, an expert in mentoring and learning alliances, says that one of the most useful exercises he undertakes with managers is to ask them to describe their learning network - the people from whom they can learn. Invariably it is much wider than they think, although he says the efficiency with which they extract learning from others is low. One of the most common insights for many managers is that they need to spend less time coaching the people and more time asking: "What can you teach me?" He says that team meetings take on a whole new dimension when participants expect to share personal learning and help to educate their manager.

The learning alliance - one strand in the learning network - is an understanding between two people who share a learning relationship valued by both of them. Clutterbuck says "mutuality of benefit occurs in all development alliances and is the glue that holds them together". The benefit to the helper may be as simple as feeling gratified that someone wants to learn from their experience.

In helping others to learn, one can play many roles. Clutterbuck lists five: coach, guardian, workplace counsellor, networker/facilitator and mentor. A coach, usually a line manager, is concerned with short-term needs and focuses on the skills and performance needed to accomplish the task. The emphasis is on providing feedback to the learner.

To be effective, coaches must be good listeners and empathisers. They should provide feedback as soon as possible after observing any behaviour that needs improving. This should be done in private. Good coaches may see much that could be improved, but they need to prioritise. Too much feedback can paralyse learners.

The guardian may take the role of adviser, role model, sponsor or master. People usually enter this kind of alliance because they see something special in each other. The guardian is reminded by someone of him or herself at the same career stage or sees someone with potential that could be developed by example. Learners may see someone succeeding in a role to which they aspire, or a powerful figure to further their ambitions. Others seek such a relationship out of vulnerability.

The guardian-learner relationship is complex, and guardians must avoid becoming father-substitutes or gurus. The learner's needs are paramount and guardians must identify those needs and react to them. They must not try to control the learner's career. Counselling has become more important as delayering, restructuring and other changes make people far less secure. People need more support. The counsellor listens, empathises and acts as a sounding board.

The workplace counsellor's aim is to help people to plan how they will achieve their development or career objectives. However, not all managers have the self-understanding or interest in others to become sensitive counsellors.

Experienced people fall into the role of networker/facilitator naturally whenever they are asked who would be the best person to contact on a particular issue. If they don't know an answer themselves, they know someone who does. They know how to develop relationships, keep in touch, and how to establish their own usefulness to other network members. They recruit new people into networks, even when there is no benefit to themselves. They share their networks openly with less experienced people, who gain access to a huge body of advice and experience.

Supporting and integrating the input from the four roles above is the mentor. This is someone having greater experience but usually no line authority over the learner. They deal as equals. The purpose of mentoring is mainly learning or development, although the result may also be better career management. Mentoring involves listening with empathy, sharing, mutual learning, professional friendship, developing insight through reflection, being a sounding-board, and providing encouragement.

"One of the aims for the organisation of the ... 21st century must be to create a climate ... where helping others to learn is natural, expected and quite unremarkable," Clutterbuck says.

'Learning Alliances: Tapping into Talent' by David Clutterbuck is published by the Institute of Personnel & Development, price pounds 18.95.