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Why personal development plans don’t work. And how to fix them.

Personal development plan

Do per­son­al devel­op­ment plans (PDPs) work? Or are they just a mean­ing­less com­pli­ance exercise? 

PDPs should help your employ­ees achieve their per­son­al devel­op­ment goals. For a busi­ness, they are impor­tant for plan­ning the future work­force, suc­ces­sion and to under­stand your organisation’s man­pow­er. Cre­at­ing good, well thought out per­son­al devel­op­ment goals for work will help your employ­ees feel engaged in their job and improve per­for­mance. Research sug­gests that at least 73% of employ­ees believe the oppor­tu­ni­ty for pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment is nec­es­sary for employ­ees to be sat­is­fied in their job. Many peo­ple end up leav­ing a job, cit­ing lack of per­son­al devel­op­ment as a reason. 

The real­i­ty is, often for employ­ees, PDPs become an unen­gag­ing bureau­crat­ic process that pre­vent them from growth in their job. Bad PDPs often leave out the per­son­al devel­op­ment bit of the plan, turn­ing it into more of a per­son­al attack plan. Most PDPs come up once a year due to either an employ­ee not doing their job well or as a bar­ri­er to entry for a new role. Devel­op­ment goals are often rushed at the end of the year and include things which don’t help the employ­ee devel­op in a way that they want.

We spoke to some of our col­leagues about their expe­ri­ences of PDPs in pre­vi­ous jobs. One col­league shared her expe­ri­ence of how a bad­ly pre­pared PDP act­ed as a bar­ri­er to entry for a man­age­r­i­al role: 

I was put on a PDP as our CEO recog­nised I was a high per­former. He asked my man­ag­er to do this so they could get me up to scratch to join the Senior Man­age­ment Team. How­ev­er, my PDP was writ­ten by my line man­ag­er and it includ­ed things like, dress more like a man­ag­er, stop being friend­ly with oth­er mem­bers of the team — ulti­mate­ly act more like a man­ag­er. These were obvi­ous­ly not attain­able in any way! I realised it was all going wrong when I was sent for man­age­ment train­ing and the guy lead­ing the course looked at my PDP and said, you don’t need to do any of these things, you need a new job.’ Ulti­mate­ly my boss was try­ing to block me from pro­gress­ing and was threat­ened by the rela­tion­ship I had with our CEO.”

Some PDPs end up becom­ing a train­ing exer­cise, to cre­ate a mini ver­sion of your cur­rent man­ag­er, rather than try­ing to under­stand which skills the employ­ee wants to devel­op. One col­league shared his expe­ri­ence of a PDP which lim­it­ed his cre­ativ­i­ty and didn’t help him take his career where he want­ed to take it: 

Often when man­agers cre­ate PDPs, they imply that the best way to be good at a job is copy what they do. This is often iron­ic because you get non-tech­ni­cal peo­ple man­ag­ing tech­ni­cal teams or vice ver­sa. These PDPs try to mould you into a cor­po­rate idea of what they think you should be. Any cre­ativ­i­ty you have they don’t want. When you point out how some­thing should be dif­fer­ent­ly, they get defen­sive. Some man­agers set per­son­al devel­op­ment plans to mould you into a mini them, not under­stand­ing where you want to take your career.”

Some per­son­al devel­op­ment plans unfor­tu­nate­ly become a per­son­al attack plan:

In one of my jobs, my PDP was based on Myers Brig­gs which isn’t the right way to struc­ture a work­force. They made every employ­ee— over 6000 peo­ple— do Myers Brig­gs and set objec­tives on the out­comes of your per­son­al­i­ty test. Moral of the sto­ry — don’t base objec­tives on psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­files of an employee.”

What should a good PDP look like?

A good PDP is about up-skilling and improv­ing employ­a­bil­i­ty, whilst help­ing the com­pa­ny meet its objec­tives. PDPs should be a joint part­ner­ship in which both the employ­ee and your organ­i­sa­tion ben­e­fit. It shouldn’t include things that aren’t achiev­able and should be some­thing that you are already plan­ning to do. 

How­ev­er, to ensure that PDPs are effec­tive and work, per­son­al devel­op­ment goals should be designed and put in place in the same way as oth­er busi­ness goals. For per­son­al devel­op­ment goals to be effec­tive, they need to be, aligned, account­able, agile and assessable. 

The four As


Align­ing per­son­al devel­op­ment goals with com­pa­ny goals can help your employ­ees set a clear path and give them a pur­pose. This ensures that they’re always work­ing towards some­thing that is rel­e­vant to them as well as the company. 


Employ­ees need to be account­able for their per­son­al devel­op­ment goals. If their goals are aligned to the company’s goals, nat­u­ral­ly they should be account­able for them too. A PDP shows an organisation’s com­mit­ment towards their peo­ple and if employ­ees are account­able for their goals, they are show­ing their com­mit­ment towards their organ­i­sa­tion. One study revealed that you have a 65% chance of com­plet­ing a goal if you com­mit to some­one. There may be ways in which employ­ees can put account­abil­i­ty into their per­son­al goals. For exam­ple, they might put a strat­e­gy or struc­ture in place, have reg­u­lar catch-ups and check-ins with their man­ag­er, or put small­er actions in place to help move along their goals. 


Goals should be agile and give room for flex­i­bil­i­ty. Set­ting short­er term goals which help employ­ees with achiev­ing their ulti­mate goal, gives them the flex­i­bil­i­ty to change things that aren’t rel­e­vant any­more. It gives employ­ees a chance to reflect on what is and isn’t work­ing — ensur­ing that they’re always work­ing towards what they want. Per­son­al devel­op­ment needs — much like busi­ness needs — don’t come up once a year.


Final­ly, goals should be assess­able so that progress can be mea­sured. Employ­ees should be able to accu­rate­ly assess how far they are from reach­ing their goal. Hav­ing assess­able goals forces employ­ees to be spe­cif­ic about their desired out­come rather than fluffy” and vague. Stud­ies have shown that when peo­ple cre­ate goals that are spe­cif­ic and chal­leng­ing, it leads to high­er per­for­mance, 90% of the time. 

The 4 As” aren’t an exhaus­tive list, and there are oth­er ways in which man­agers and employ­ees can cre­ate good per­son­al devel­op­ment goals. But the key ele­ment with cre­at­ing a good PDP is that the same impor­tance that is placed on busi­ness goals, needs to be placed on per­son­al devel­op­ment goals too. This can help your man­agers cre­ate a plan that works, empow­ers your employ­ees and helps them grow. 

Want to learn more about goal setting?

Watch out webi­nar on Tack­ling the 6 biggest issues around objec­tive set­ting for your organ­i­sa­tion.” This webi­nar will clear up OKR’s, agile, team, col­lab­o­ra­tive, SMART, devel­op­men­tal and indi­vid­ual objec­tives once and for all. 

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