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Don’t Waste Your Time Training

By Tom Davidson

Training is great. Don’t get me wrong. I make a good living as a leadership trainer. But entirely too much training is thrown at fixing performance challenges when the root cause of the problem lies elsewhere. This wastes their time, your money and opportunity cost for everyone of taking better action. Much like teaching a pig to sing. It won’t work, and it pisses off the pig.

Here is a quick situation assessment tool to help you determine where you might need to intervene to improve the performance, because it doesn’t always begin with training.

1. Is the person smart enough? Not much is going to get better if the performance problem starts here. By “smart enough,” I mean critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence. They might get by on one or the other for a while, but in leadership, they need enough of both. Smart organizations test for these factors at the point of hiring, because they know these factors are very very hard to change later and they are the root of success in most jobs that involve leadership. When either of these factors are low, the finding a better fit is easier than trying to fix the problem.

If the person is smart enough, you can move on to the second question.

2. Is the person aware enough? At least 75 percent of the performance problems that cross my desk as an executive coach are the fault of the client’s manager for not doing enough to make the person aware of the performance problem. “They should know by now,” they say, or they sugarcoat the truth to avoid discomfort for themselves or to protect their “working relationship.” What kind of a person who wants to protect the working relationship lets another person drive off a cliff when they could have done something to prevent it? Show them they are headed toward a cliff with data, feedback and indisputable proof that they are not performing to expectations. They can’t fix what they don’t know about. Don’t have written expectations? Then there’s another part of the problem.

If the person is smart enough and aware enough, you can move on to the third question.

3. Do they care enough? Just because you need them to change something about their performance and just because you showed them the impact of what they are doing so they are fully aware of the impacts and consequences, doesn’t mean that they will change. They have to want to – enough. More time and energy is wasted on this step, because all lazy managers know to do is give the business reason, hang a carrot in front of the person’s nose and hold a stick at their rear ends in case they don’t do what they’re being encouraged to do. OK, this might be enough, but only for short-term gain and small changes in behavior. For real improvement to happen, a person has to want to change deep down, at the intrinsic level. Successful managers illuminate what’s important to each individual and creatively link these discoveries to the needed changes in behavior or performance. Then – maybe – the person will put sufficient discretionary effort into the solution or what comes next in this hierarchy.

If the person is smart enough, aware enough and cares enough, then you can finally move on to the step you wanted to do from the beginning.

4. Does the person know what to do? Training often solves this problem, but not unless the other factors are sufficiently covered. New leaders don’t automatically know how to delegate, orchestrate a meeting, or improve a team. There is training for all of this, but it would be like water off a roof if the person is not interested, doesn’t care or isn’t smart enough to grasp the important nuances of the work. That’s why people should be more carefully chosen for training and assessed to see whether or not the performance problem is truly related to a skills gap, which the training is designed to fill. Don’t waste your time with training if training is not likely to solve the problem.

If the person is smart enough, aware enough, cares enough and knows what do to do yet there is still a performance problem, you can finally move on to the next question.

5. Do they do it? Just because they got exposed to the skill – and maybe even practiced it successfully – doesn’t mean they will use the skill set. First of all, the transfer of training is normally an abysmal 10 to 35 percent (see my blog titled, “Site preparation for leadership”). Second, when people get back from training, they re-enter an environment that may not support the new skill of behavior. Third, they still may not want to do it, in which case they have the skill but not the will. At this point, you need to start looking at organizational factors, leadership support, mentoring and coaching to help the individual actually use their skills and solve your many problems and theirs.

There is much more to fixing performance problems than just sending folks to training. It’s the nature people, and it’s the nature of leadership.


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