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Development Isn't Always Win-Win

Imagine you are asked to play a game. You are given ten $1 dollar bills. Your goal is to end the game (which lasts 10 minutes) with $10.  Here is how it is played. You can place a bet of $1 at a time. You flip a coin. Heads, you lose the dollar. Tails, you get the same dollar back (no additional money). At first glance, you think “I won’t place a bet, because there is no upside to betting”. To ensure you bet, a rule is added that if you don’t bet, at random intervals the game leader will take $1 from you. If that happens, you get to flip the coin – heads you don’t get another dollar and tails you get $0.50.

It is possible that you can win, but highly unlikely. The odds are stacked against you in every instance.

This is how some managers feel about developing employees. In the best case scenario, employee development is a win-win-win situation. The organization gets the benefit of the skills, the manager gets praised as a good manager, and the employee gets chances to advance.

Unfortunately, some organizations (usually larger ones) don’t have this situation. In some cases, a manager takes it upon themselves to hold someone back because they don’t want to lose that person. In other cases, the organization puts the manager in a horrible position like the game at the beginning of this post.

Managers expect that when an individual gets promoted (either internally or externally), that they will get to keep the headcount. In others words, someone leaves and you get a chance to replace them. The companies that take the opportunity of a promotion to reduce or transfer headcount, actually punish the manager for doing a good job. A manager might develop someone so they get promoted to another department, then executives say they won’t backfill the role. The manager has done the right thing and now has to do the same amount of work with fewer people.

If managers don’t develop people or develop them but then hold them back from promotions so they don’t lose them, people leave the team – they quit and go work for other orgs where they see opportunity to grow. This is even worse because you may still lose the headcount or you could get to hire someone who doesn’t have the skills, experience, and institutional knowledge of the person who left.

If you are a manager and your organization puts you in this situation, there is nothing you can do. Instead of win-win, your organization is making it lose-lose.

The manager has to make a choice: Be the person who doesn’t develop people and holds people back because it is best for you (selfish, but totally understandable) OR do what is best for the employee by developing them, getting the benefit of their work with the realization that there is a good chance it will hurt you at some point. Are there ways to mitigate this risk? Sure, but the manager will always be in this no-win situation.

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