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Weekly Column: The Experience Trap

Friday, June 12, 2009
I, like many others - perhaps like many of you, have run into problems within the public service because of my "lack of experience".

I call it the Experience Trap. Have you ever run into it?

Someone looks you in the eye and says something like, "Nick, you need more experience doing this in order to get this position, be assigned this task, etc."

I have. In fact, nothing motivates me more to accomplish something than being told I can't, or that I need to do X and Y before I can do Z. In these situations, my response to the experience trap is always the same:

"If you don't give me a chance to try it and prove myself, how will I ever get the experience I need? Besides, if I only ever work on what I am doing now, how do I move to where I want to get? There is an opportunity here for both of us: me, to learn and apply new skills and you, to reap the benefits thereof. You either need to give me a shot to prove myself or I need to look for a manager that trusts me, one that is willing to stretch me with tasks that are a little beyond my initial capacity. Did you get to where you are by keeping your head down or by taking on new challenges?"

If they say "by keeping my head down and following orders" that should be your red flag right there, and if I were you, I would immediately start looking for a new manager.

If they say by facing and learning from new challenges, ask about how they got those chances.

Was it a good manager who saw something in them? If so ask your manager what it is that is preventing them from seeing those similar qualities in you.

Was it a risk they took on their own? If so, ask why they did it, and would they advise you to do the same? How did it impact their manager at the time? Wouldn't they rather be involved than sidestepped?

Either way, start that conversation and see it through. You might learn a lot about yourself, and maybe even enlighten your manager.

Holding people back by refusing them stretch assignments isn't new, nor is it something that is limited to new or young public servants. People of all ages, with varying degrees of tenure and experiences are denied chances to face new challenges due to the experience trap. Sometimes, disarming that trap may mean having some difficult conversations.

Have you run into the experience trap? How did you get out of it? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment - it might just help get someone else out of the trap.