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Zone of Proximal Development
Getting people from where they are to where they could be
In developmental psychology, Vygotsky’s concept of the “Zone of Proximal Development” defines the “grey area” between what someone can do competently on their own, and what they can’t do yet. This is the “growth zone” in which someone can develop and master new skills if they have the “scaffolding” that a teacher/coach/mentor can provide.
As leaders, this can be a useful framework to use in staff development. Consider performance reviews—you can discuss what the person does well (and give them positive feedback for those things!), and you can then consider where they aspire to be. What would they need to learn and what skills would they need to develop before they would be ready for their next promotion? You can “scaffold” those skills to help them develop and grow into more capable and competent professionals.
First off, you can teach them what they need to know. If you 1) enjoy mentoring and coaching, and 2) if you are competent at the skill(s) yourself, you can do this directly. However, if you do not have the knowledge/skills yourself, or if you don’t have the time, or if you really don’t have “patiently nurturing others” in your wheelhouse, then delegate it. Assign peer mentors—“Hey Kiley, can I ask you to show Devon how to run that analysis today?” Or you can send the person to outside training. Just make sure that they get the skills from someone who has the expertise to share… and that person can be you or someone else.
Second, model behaviors for them. Bring along younger staffers on client calls, so they can see how you do them. This “shadowing” is a great way to introduce them to the '“next level” skills in client-facing roles. Show them what you do, and take some time to explain why you do it. Many times, this is the “ride home” conversation after the client meeting. Make sure it’s a two-way conversation, so the junior person can ask questions and share insights.
Third, delegate tasks to them to grow their experience. You can start small, and you will need to check their work (this is part of providing that “scaffolding”). You also will need to provide feedback that focuses on “this is how to do it right” rather than “this is what you got wrong.” Continue to grow their responsibilities in ways that build their competence and confidence. If you do your job and grow your people well, then over time, an inexperienced new hire can become one of your top performing professionals, and you may grow an entire office of superstars, who can then take on larger and more complex projects—and make you look really good in the process.
Done well, this is my favorite kind of outcome—a win-win for everyone involved. My people are successful and fulfilled in their jobs; I get great work from them; our clients are delighted, and we can sustain long-term growth that does great things for the firm’s revenue stream.