The Training Hoax
When a gap in human performance is noted, many managers want to “throw training” at the issue. Some hold the view that, “Training fixes anything!” Wrong!
There are, in fact, times when training is worse than doing nothing. In other circumstances, training can be the right approach, in fact, the ONLY approach. In this article, we provide a current, real-life example and then suggest ways to analyze the situation and determine the best way to close the performance gap.
We were recently engaged to develop management training for a public utility. Managers were observing performance discrepancies but turning a blind eye and NOT holding their people accountable. To correct what they saw as a gap in their managers’ skill set, senior management determined that the managers needed to improve their coaching skills. We were asked to “develop some training on coaching,” which we drafted and sent back to our contact for comment, which he passed up the chain.
In his email response, he indicated that some of the site management were not sold on the training. The site lead “seemed to think that the folks may not need the classroom stuff but rather just practice and review on camera because they 'sat in my office and told me they know how to do this’." After consideration, we responded, and I “quote” from our e-mail:
“…As to the larger question of whether the folk need the classroom stuff, I have a few thoughts. If in fact they "sat in my office and told me they know how to do this," then the question that leaps out is "so why aren't they exhibiting the desired behaviors?" There are only three answers that come to my mind:
1) They DO know some (or all) of the principles behind effective feedback and coaching, but they need a process, and practice in that process, before they are comfortable enough with it to use it as part of their day-to-day work. If this is true, then they really do need the classroom time to learn a process, then to practice it, before they go on camera. (You and I both know that going on camera is perceived by the learner in many corporate cultures as an assessment, and smart instructors don't give tests before the learner has had a chance to learn and practice.)
2) They DO know the principles well enough so that they could go out right now and do a credible job of coaching. They are not doing so because there is a breakdown in the Performance System that supports these behaviors. If, for example, the expectations or procedures are cloudy (from the Performer's perspective); if there is not a clear signal (again, from the Performer's perspective) to perform the behavior; if anything gets in the way or the perceived consequences for doing the behaviors are not aligned, then the Performer can fully know "how" and still never "do." If this is true, then the folk who should be in training and doing facilitated design work are the folk in upper management, and they should be analyzing, and then engineering the Performance System so that it fully supports the desired behaviors.
3) They DON'T know how and are just blowing smoke because they don't want to make the effort.
Of course, I can't answer the question, that's for you, the Senior VP and others to call ... This assumes that the FeedBack and Coaching skills you want to see have been truly deemed to be of real benefit to their performance and the company’s bottom line. If you feel that we're just working to enable someone to "check off a box," and this is running into time or money resource questions, then it's probably dead already. Assuming that the organization really does want it's leaders to be effective in giving FeedBack, and that current levels of Performance are unacceptable, I STRONGLY encourage you and other decision-makers to decide whether its door number 1, 2 or 3 (or other) first.”
While we eventually were contracted to deliver the training, this exchange highlights a few key points if one is EVER to improve human performance within their team, department or company:
- There is ALWAYS pushback to any human performance development initiative. It represents CHANGE and extra EFFORT. Folks have, over time, assumed or developed their own approaches, which they perceive as “working just fine.” And in today’s climate, everyone has more than enough to accomplish without having to devote the time and energy needed to learn and perfect new approaches. Don’t be surprised by the pushback, expect it. (See tips to managing change here)
- You must determine how important the new skills are to your performance. Gone are the days (and the associated budgets) when it was sufficient to identify training that would be “nice to have”. In today’s day and age, one must be ready to explain how improving particular skills will add to the bottom line. Unclear potential for bottom line improvement = no expenditure!
- When you’ve identified a real performance gap that demonstrably holds you and/or the organization back, don’t just “throw training at it.” Let me digress: performance gaps have traditionally been described as a “skill” (i.e., I don’t know how, so I don’t do) issue or a “will” (i.e., I do know how, but I still don’t do) issue. While we are OK with the “skill” label, the “will” label ignores two facts:
- All other things being equal, almost everyone would rather do a good job than a poor job.
- All other things being equal, virtually everyone would rather do something than nothing.
Given these facts, if I know how but am not meeting standard, then some element(s) in my Performance System is misaligned and supports my less-than-desired performance. While ultimately I am the only one who can choose to raise my own performance, my managers can and should analyze the performance system and correct the misalignment.
- So back to your employee’s performance issue. If, as in this example, your supervisors are not providing FeedBack when you know that they should, ask yourself if this is a “skill” issue or a Performance System issue. Training is good for one thing, and one thing only: to cure a deficiency of knowledge. Does this person not know how to give FeedBack well enough in order to exhibit the behavior? Or does the person know how and just doesn’t do, i.e., is there something in the Performance System that does not support the person to do it?
- If it’s a “skill” or training issue, make sure that the training you provide addresses both Principles (in our example, “Communicate clearly,” “Show respect,” “Seek to understand their point of view,” etc.) and actual Processes (i.e., particular steps to follow in a particular order to achieve specific results.) Too many human performance training sessions stop at the level of Principles and leave out the actual mechanics needed for success. Science comes before art: get your people good in the processes that will work for 90% of the situations in which the skill is needed, and they will figure out how to modify the process in the additional 10% of the “tough cases.”
- If it’s a Performance System’s issue, then DON’T provide training. Besides wasting money, training in this instance will breed cynicism because employees already know how, and more training doesn't fix the performance system issue that is getting in their way. Instead, analyze the Performance System, identify the breakdown(s) within the system, and address those. (Performance Systems Analysis is embedded in almost everything we do. We’ve devoted two radio shows in particular to Performance System Analysis: listen in via iTunes. Visit our archive to access free PowerPoint modules on PSA, reference August 7 & August 14, 2008. More information on Performance System Analysis workshops here.)
For any organization to excel its people must continually grow and improve. When a performance gap surfaces, it must be promptly and effectively addressed. It does not, however, always follow that training is the only, or even the best, way to close that gap. If a performance gap needs to be addressed, first determine if you’re dealing with a “skill” issue or a Performance System issue. Then, as we discussed above, use the appropriate tool. You will simultaneously maximize your resources as well as your Human Performance results!