Don’t Get Hit by Runaway Training

By Tom Davidson

Q. We send people to a lot of training, but it doesn’t seem to help. What’s the problem?

A. A big part of your job as a manager is to improve the performance of your team, but don’t fall for the most common assumption that training is the solution.

Remember the old warning, “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Training is a great tool, but it doesn’t work in every situation. In fact, the wrong application of a hammer can turn a simple carpentry job into an irreversible mess! The same is true with training. While it’s a great tool, it might not help and can make things much worse.

For example, I was once called in to do anger management training for a group of people but resisted the initial temptation to deliver the requested solution. After a proper assessment, it turned out that the team in question just needed to clarify some roles and responsibilities, and the leader needed coaching, not training. While it would have been much easier to do the anger management training and call it a day, it would have just made everyone angrier!

Training is the solution when the problem can be solved by training, but most performance problems have their roots in something else, like

  • Unclear or poorly communicated expectations
  • Organizational norms that punish desired behaviors
  • Reward systems that encourage the wrong things
  • Peer pressure
  • Poor leadership
  • Lack of internal motivation
  • Negative working relationships
  • Misaligned policies or procedures

Only prescribe training when a person or group doesn’t know how to do a certain skill and by using that skill, the problem will likely be solved. Bu how do you know when that’s the case? First, you can call in a performance consultant to help, but you can’t do that all the time. Second, you can try this simple assessment technique yourself. It’s called, “Asking ‘Why’ Five Times.”

Here’s an example using the anger management example above:

Why do you think anger management training is the solution? Because people are having trouble containing their emotions and regularly blowing up at each other.

Why are they blowing up at each other? Because they’re frustrated with their jobs.

Why are they frustrated with their jobs? Because they don’t know what the others are doing, sometimes step on each other’s toes and spend too much time doing rework.

Why are they so confused by their work? Because their boss keeps changing priorities and telling people what to do without coordinating the work effort.

Why does the boss do that? Because he doesn’t know how to organize the work flow and would rather avoid conflict than get people together to talk things through.

Asking “why” five times, of yourself or the appropriate others, usually gets you through the most obvious layers of any problem and much closer to the root cause. If the root cause is lack of skill, then training may very well be the solution.

By using the right tool for the job, you’ll be a hero for saving time, saving money, and solving the right problems with the right solutions.

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