Debunking misconceptions about career conversations

In the workplace, conversations about career development and performance are crucial for employee growth, engagement, retention and organizational success.  However, there are common misconceptions that lead to misunderstandings and missed opportunities.  Below we explore some of these misconceptions and arm you with essential knowledge.

Misconception 1: Career Conversations are the same as performance conversations

One of the most common misconceptions is that career conversations and performance conversations are one and the same. While both types of conversations are important, and interlinked, they serve different purposes.  Taking the narrowest view, performance conversations typically focus on discussing past performance and are generally tied to compensation, promotions and performance development plans, all of which are designed to help ensure the organisation receives a good return on it’s human assets (with engagement etc as a by-product).  Career conversations, on the other hand, put the individual employee at the centre of the discussion and explore career goals and aspirations without judgement, bias or agenda and identify development opportunities to help the individual progress their career.  Often, the development opportunities that come from meaningful career conversations align with identified performance development initiatives and vice versa but it’s important to note that’s not always the case.  Tackling the two conversations separately in the first instance will help ensure employees feel safe to discuss their career aspirations without fear of negative consequences.

Misconception 2: Career conversations are HR’s responsibility

Another common misconception is that career conversations are the responsibility of HR. While HR plays a crucial role in creating an environment for these conversations and building understanding around career conversation roles and responsibilities, the reality is career conversations should be a regular part of every leader’s interactions with their team members.  Leaders who are appropriately skilled, genuinely interested and actively engaged in their team’s career development demonstrate a curiosity to understand their people.

Misconception 3: Career conversations are one-time events

Believing career conversations to be one-time events is another common misconception.  As a consequence, leaders can be seen trying to tackle everything in one sitting with limited results and potentially damaging implications for trust and relationships.  Career development is actually a repeating process of self-reflection, self-clarity, possibility exploration, goal-setting, planning, implementation, results and adaptation.  As such, it requires regular attention and discussion.   Leaders should aim to use the everyday work context and ongoing discussions to help team members gain clarity about (1) what is important to them, the skills they want to use and what delivers job satisfaction, (2) their hopes or ideas for the future, (3) the skills and experiences they wish to build and (4) the questions they are yet to find the answers to.  As part of these discussions, individuals can request support from their leaders to help them gain further clarity, fill gaps and build connections and knowledge that will help them progress.

Misconception 4: Career conversations are only for high performers

Another damaging misconception is that career conversations are only necessary for high performers. Every employee, regardless of performance level, can benefit from career development discussions. By engaging all employees in career conversations, organizations can create a more inclusive and supportive culture where everyone has the opportunity to grow and succeed.

Misconception 5:  Career development = promotion

Career development is many things, not just a hierarchical promotion.  It might be a re-shaped role, additional responsibilities, getting involved in a special project, building networks, role adjustments to reduce stress, sideways moves, re-training, upskilling, brand building, and so much more.   Good quality career development conversations acknowledge that careers meet different needs at different times and are subject to the pressures that other areas of life exert.   To support this, leaders must demonstrate respect for each individual’s unique situation, values and priorities and leave their own opinions at the door.

Misconception 6:  The leader needs to have all the answers

Leaders – it’s not your job to have all the answers or do all the work for your team member.  After all, it’s not your career, your life or your story so your personal opinions and the decisions you would make are not relevant.  Instead, the role of the leader is to provoke career thinking in the individual, facilitate insight and find ways to open up development opportunities that the individual may need help to access.  Responsibility for career development thinking, action and results ultimately rests with the individual.  For most leaders this will come as a huge relief however, stepping into this new approach requires leaders to remove bias, bring appropriate conversational support skills and also expertly navigate the interplay between individual career aspirations, performance and organisational needs and objectives.  Simple to understand but not always easy to achieve.