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Are you guilty of throwing people in The Deep End? And letting them Sink or Swim?

People toss around this old cliche in workplaces, like a cork, casually thrown overboard, being thrown around by the waves. It is often used to justify a lack of support and strategic growth opportunities for team members. Worse, it papers over the failure of leadership that is usually the root cause.

 While the deep end has its merits, throwing people in there is almost always a flawed approach. A few people will thrive, but it’s usually a knee jerk reaction, made necessary because we didn’t develop people before they needed the skills. If circumstances sometimes dictate this approach, because you find yourself fishing in a shallow pond for new team members, check out this article.

The Deep End should never be the default approach for developing people. Assessing capabilities, providing support, and encouraging growth are important topics of this article. So grab your imaginary snorkels, and let’s jump right in!

The Deep End: Where People Sink

Picture this: a new team member, fresh-faced and full of enthusiasm, suddenly thrown into a role that exceeds their skill set and experience. It’s like tossing a non-swimmer into a turbulent sea without a life jacket. While some may manage to stay afloat, others sink under the pressure – and the fear of failure. The results are drowned morale, low productivity, and potential burnout. It also leads to a blame-based, non collaborative environment as there is a scramble for precious space on the life rafts. As leaders, we need to acknowledge that hoping for the best won’t lead to growth for all.

The Shallow End: Learning to Swim

What if we took this approach instead? Before casting someone into the deep end, we assess their capabilities and offer them a supportive and growth focused environment. We start them off in the shallow end, where they can comfortably touch the ground. This allows them to build their skills, gain confidence, and learn the ropes at a manageable pace. By providing the tools, training, and mentorship, we set them up for success, giving them the opportunity to learn to swim rather than just stay afloat.

Of course, not everyone needs to start at the shallow end. Some team members will be comfortable in the middle, standing on the tips of their toes, pushing their boundaries but able to breathe!

Avoiding the Comfort Zone: Nudging them towards the Deep End

While the shallow end offers a safe haven, we can’t allow people to remain there indefinitely. Comfort breeds complacency, and staying in one place stunts growth. Once individuals have learned to swim in the shallows, it’s time to nudge them towards the deep end. This isn’t about throwing them in and hoping they survive—it’s a deliberate, strategic push towards new challenges and opportunities. By stretching their abilities, we foster growth, collaboration, and a sense of accomplishment.

The Role of Leadership

Leadership plays a pivotal role in this process. Outstanding leaders recognise the strengths and weaknesses of their team members and create environments that promote growth. They understand that not everyone will learn at the same pace, and they adapt their approach accordingly. Effective leaders offer guidance, support, and constructive feedback, serving as lifeguards who help their team navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of the workplace.

Lifelines and Safety Nets: Building a Supportive Culture

To truly empower individuals to learn and grow, we must create a workplace culture that values collaboration and support. By fostering open communication, encouraging knowledge-sharing, and providing resources, we build lifelines and safety nets for our employees. When they encounter challenges, they can reach out to their colleagues, mentors, and leaders for guidance, ensuring that they don’t get lost in the deep end.

The Joy of Mastery: Celebrating Success

As individuals progress from the shallow end to the deep end, they master their roles and develop expertise. We must acknowledge and celebrate this journey from novice to skilled professional. We should recognise and reward achievements to foster a culture of growth.

Stop throwing people in the deep end. Instead, insist they get wet by getting in the shallow end, then teach them to swim and challenge them to grow by nudging them towards the deep end.

Some team members will take to their role like a duck to water, others may need to start out with floaties. If you find yourself constantly people them in the deep end, look at your own process. Would investing in their growth before it became urgent have avoided the crisis? Even if you learned by being thrown in the deep end – and survived – it doesn’t make it the best approach.