Helping people learn new things is super-fun. It isn’t always easy, but it’s always gratifying. For over two decades, I was a corporate trainer, conducting in-person learning programs and later, webinars, to a wide array of employees. I’ve facilitated programs in warehouses, stuffy conference rooms, outdoors, and with simultaneous translation to groups of non-English speakers. Many of the participants were high-energy, enthusiastic learners; others were hostile lumps of humanity, determined to learn nothing.
Over the years, certain patterns emerged related to managers who asked me to design and deliver training programs. These patterns were similar whether it was from my time as an internal corporate trainer or as an independently employed training and development consultant. “Training is training”, I suppose. I’ve come to think of these patterns as “truths”— conditions that surround a request for training that remain true no matter what the circumstance. Unfortunately, not everyone seems to be aware of these truths, and this often leads to disappointment over training outcomes.
Whenever I met with leaders requesting that a training program be built, I always outlined these issues, to ensure that a) training was actually a good investment of time and b) learners got the most out of the experience.
- If employees already know how to do the job, training is a waste of time. Managers often default to “let’s send them to training!” when they encounter a lack of employee performance. This is a well-meaning, but misguided approach. If the employees in question have been observed adequately performing their jobs, then there is another reason they’re not doing their job to the manager’s satisfaction. They might be unclear about their roles or goals. They might not have incentive—financial or otherwise. There may be a lack of tools, information or resources. And if this is the case, don’t bother with training, fix the underlying problem.
- People are more motivated than you think. They just might not be motivated towards what you want as a leader. “Lack of motivation” is often cited for why people don’t do things, and sending them to training seems like just the ticket to get them “inspired.” Not even close. As a leadership team, pay more attention to the items listed in point #1 as reasons for lack of performance and your “motivation problems” will decline.
- Training can’t fix broken people. I’ve actually had managers send people to training classes to help “fix” their mental or emotional health problems. Of course, these managers didn’t both to alert me to this, because they wanted to maintain the employee’s privacy. Again, well-intentioned, but a bone-headed move just the same. So I was left to deal with the fallout when the employee had a very public meltdown in class because he or she wasn’t able to cope in the group setting. People who are struggling in this way need the help of a clinical professional, not to be sent to a basic interpersonal communications course.
- Direct supervisors are a huge determinant of training’s success. When employees come to a training session, I can typically tell which ones have a direct supervisor who’s plugged in to the process. These employees show up on time, they know why they’re in the session and they have a plan for what to do after the session. And it’s all due to the time their supervisors took to work with them prior to attending the training session.
- New hires are susceptible to peer pressure. I once worked with a training director who was in charge of conducting a six-week program for their newly hired call center employees. She noticed an odd phenomenon: when the new employees went into the call center after training, they outperformed their more experienced peers for the first week or two on the job. Then their performance started to dip. After a bit of investigation, she discovered that the more tenured employees were saying to the new hires, “Slow down! Don’t work so hard. You’re making us all look bad and then they’ll [management] up our numbers.” The upshot: her training program worked just fine, but the environment outside the training room led to a decline in performance.
- What happens before and after the training event is just as important as what happens during training. As numbers 4 and 5 show, training can be stellar and still not move the needle on employee performance. Why? Because there are myriad factors that affect why people can or can’t, will or won’t do their jobs satisfactorily. Although leaders aren’t in a position to control every single element surrounding employees’ performance (for example, a crisis in the employee’s family life), they have more influence than they think. Training programs have their best chance for success when employees are given clear feedback about why they’re going to training, are given ample time to make up the work they lost due to attending training and are given time to practice what they learned after they attend training.
Training isn’t a Magic Wand that can be waved over employees and voila! their performance immediately improves. It is one tool in the toolbox of corporate managers seeking to build a company filled with talented, motivated and engaged employees. Whenever people tell me their company’s training programs suck or are a “waste of time”, I know that at least one of the truths listed above was ignored. Don’t be that manager—heed these truths and you’ll invest in training only when it makes sense. Your people will thank you for it.
Photo credit: Ivelin Radkov