How to Have a Career Development Conversation with Your Employee Using the EARS Model

Following the steps of a performance review found in an old, dusty binder on the shelf of an HR department does little to help employees develop or improve their performance. Performance reviews are designed to be backward-looking instruments—closing the book on a specific time period in the recipient’s employment with the organization—and they mostly serve as documentation and justification for decisions that the manager has already made about the employee’s potential. This traditional approach often hinges on paperwork, corporate jargon, and a robotic approach focused on checking boxes, rather than actual human interaction and meaningful career development. 

These kinds of uninspired discussions leave both employees and managers feeling unsatisfied and unproductive. They also leave your organization at risk for losing your best people.

“Everybody hates writing [performance reviews], everybody hates getting them, and nobody believes them. They have become a completely discredited ritual.”

Margaret Heffernan, Former CEO and Management Consultant

Career development conversations should be forward-looking and focused on ways in which employees can improve or further hone their skills. These types of discussion are a crucial part of employee engagement, yet many managers find them to be challenging and complex. This is unfortunate, because career development conversations can do a tremendous amount for an employee, their work product, and their overall mental health.

So how can managers have a career development conversation with their employees without mingling them with performance reviews? 

For a worker, it can be tranformative to have a conversation with their manager centered on growth, challenges, opportunities, and the future that’s actually meaningful and fruitful. By understanding and harnessing the power found in true development, HR leaders can help their organization’s managers get the most out of their employees by recognizing their humanity.

Does Your Organization Recognize the Reality of These Challenging Conversations?

Even though most organizational leaders understand the challenge of empowering managers, few are willing to rethink their current approach. But the importance of managers having successful career development conversations cannot be overstated. A study by Gallup revealed that 59% of millennials consider development opportunities a crucial factor in job selection. 

The traditional annual review process and the misconception that managers are the sole source of employee development are outdated and inefficient. Managers are often seen as the end-all-be-all for employee development, a belief that puts immense pressure on them and leaves little room for employee autonomy. 

Any perceived issues aren’t going to be solved in a conversation that happens once a year. Development is not the same as performance—and the two ideas often get confused by managers and HR leaders. 

Keep in mind that great employees aren't always great managers. The ability to set goals and drive a team toward them does not equate to the ability to nurture and develop individual team members. The classic top-down approach to feedback and career development is proving to be inadequate. Many managers are unprepared to provide this kind of support, resulting in lost opportunities for employee career development.

This illustrates that it’s not necessarily that managers fail at providing helpful development. Instead, they just lack the proper tools, infrastructure, and ways of thinking to encourage actionable development.

Want to help you and your managers do better in your organization? Check out our session at the BambooHR Virtual Summit!

A Real, Actionable Solution: The EARS Model

Is there a way to empower your managers to have real development discussions with their direct reports? We say yes.

Tackling this requires HR leaders to rethink how their managers approach feedback, career conversations, and performance reviews. This starts with a fundamental shift in how performance reviews and development conversations are approached. 

Ask your managers these questions:

  • How often do you talk to your employees about their growth and development?

  • How are performance issues nipped in the bud before they grow into something more? 

  • Does our organization offer you the help you need to develop and grow your team?

After these questions comes a guiding strategy for feedback and development. At PILOT, we call this the EARS model, a method based on the GROW coaching model. Even the name is appropriate for its purpose because coaching relies heavily on listening. 

EARS helps move the manager into an active listening role and puts the employee in charge of their insights and development goals. It shifts the narrative from a manager-centric approach to regular balanced, collaborative conversations that empower both the employee and the manager.

HR leaders can use this method to instruct their organizational leaders to provide an environment of actual development for employees. The EARS model is broken down like this: 

  1. Establish: The conversation starts by ensuring that it is the right time for both parties and that there are clear, positive intentions behind the discussion. This sets a positive tone and lays the groundwork for a productive conversation. 

  2. Assess: The manager provides specific feedback, focusing on particular areas of opportunity. This ensures that the feedback is actionable and directly tied to the employee’s development. 

  3. Review: Together, the employee and manager explore multiple ways to support the employee’s growth, selecting the most suitable next steps. This collaborative approach ensures that the employee is engaged and invested in their development journey. 

  4. Shake: Finally, clear commitments are made regarding next steps, timelines, and expectations. This ensures accountability and moves towards an environment for ongoing development. 

Remember, this is not a “once a year” type of thing. The EARS model can be applied to everyday conversations with employees. Managers are equipped to have more frequent and effective developmental conversations, fostering a deeper connection with their employees and promoting a culture of continuous growth and development. 

It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t just a model that our team deploys to support our customers, but one that integral to employee development within our organization as well.

“The EARS model takes something that’s often tedious or difficult and instead offers managers an easy and effective way to have future-focused developmental conversations. I use this with my own direct reports and the structure makes all the difference.”

Ben Brooks, CEO & Founder, PILOT

Genuine Employee Development: The Overall Benefit of Managers as Coaches, Not Bosses

As much as the goal of the EARS model is to provide actionable steps for employee development, it’s vital to not allow these discussion to devolve into another box-checking exercise. To achieve the true impact, these steps should be viewed as a sign posts for a successful conversation rather than a robotic program. 

Taking this holistic approach with the EARS model serves to redefine the role of the manager in employee development. Instead of being the sole driver of an employee's growth, the manager becomes a facilitator—a coach that helps guide the employee through their development journey. 

This not only empowers employees but also enables managers to lead, have career development conversations, and grow teams of new individuals. Gallup data shows that managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement. 

Organizations that help their managers have these nuanced conversations and this approach to better engage employees can positively influence engagement. That leads to a better quality of life for employees, managers, and your organization at large.

“One of the most broken constructs that we propagate in our organizations is that managers are the best people to develop employees. Sure, managers play a key role and have a unique perspective in supervising and developing employees. But today’s flatter organizations mean managers have a wide span of control and increasingly less time to develop their staff. Behavioral research has proven that when people change behaviors with others they get far superior, sustainable results, and this extends to how we develop employees.”

Ben Brooks, CEO & Founder, PILOT, via Why Learning Together is Superior, Sustainable, & Scalable

How to Have a Career Development Conversation With Your Employee: Offer Real Inspiration

By shifting a manager’s conversation from performance to development, the EARS model creates a world that eliminates the potential scary word of “boss.” Organizations with a dictator-like approach foster a culture of fear—and that culture does nothing drive burnout. 

Your managers must approach these conversations like a coach. They will recognize that development is different from performance, and that both need to be nurtured for true employee engagement.

A little bit of reimagining can be revolutionizing.

Interested in how PILOT can transform your approach to employee development?

Book a demo today, and let’s discuss how to have a career development conversation with your employee.


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