A client in the consumer products industry recently sent an aspiring senior scientist to our consultancy for executive communications coaching. The goal was to begin preparing her to be a subject matter expert during high-stakes sales meetings. As valuable as her expertise was to the company, her public-speaking anxiety levels were off the charts. She made demonstrable progress during our day-long session, and our team was confident that if the company followed our recommended developmental model, she now had the foundation to develop into a credible advocate for the company.
For that to happen, we advised that she needed opportunities to practice and ingrain what she had learned, which in turn would foster the self-confidence she needed to manage the discomfort public speaking invokes in many of us. Instead, her boss proverbially threw her into the deep end of the pool with only a day of swimming lessons. He scheduled her to make a lengthy, high-value presentation within the week.
The promise -- and limitations -- of workplace training.
Too often, there is an unrealistic expectation that training instantaneously confers skills on employees, regardless of their natural aptitude in the given arena. “There are a number of myths that organizations have about training,” academician and workplace training expert Eduardo Salas told The Wall Street Journal. “The first myth is that if you send an unskilled employee to training, when they come back there is immediately a changed, improved, skilled worker. It’s much more complex than that.”
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Other experts concur. “To expect improved performance from an isolated training event defies everything we know about behavior change,” organizational learning and development veteran Dennis E. Coates concluded in a report for the Association for Talent Development. The organization earlier this year found that more than one-half of survey respondents said their organizations do a poor -- or no -- job preparing supervisors and leaders to support development of their staff’s skills post-training.
What happens before and after is as important as training itself.
The role of an employee’s supervisor -- and in the case of larger organizations, other middle management and executives -- in the success of training cannot be overstated. They set the tone for everything from how important the training is perceived and how seriously it’s taken, to how its success will be evaluated. “If management doesn’t make a priority of improving performance and optimizing systems to support transfer of training, nothing is likely to change,” Coates said.
To that end, my consultancy insists that encore training we conduct is introduced by a senior-level employee who previously participated in one of our programs. In addition to underscoring the organizational importance of the training, that manager frames the training’s scope, spanning the pre-training exercises we assign through the follow-up that should occur within the organization’s post-training efforts.
What pre- and post-training work should accomplish.
Pre-training work also should set expectations and establish realistic post-training goals. “You had better set the table first,” counseled Jim D. Kirkpatrick and Wendy Kayser Kirkpatrick in American Management Association’s Training on Trial: How Workplace Learning Must Reinvent Itself to Remain Relevant. “Let individuals know why you will be [evaluating them] (i.e., to help them perform better) and how you will go about it.” Letting participants know in advance that they will be assessed on how well they implement what they learn in training also motivates them to actively participate.
Pre-training work sets the stage, but post-training follow-up is what ensures that newly acquired skills are integrated into an employee’s work in meaningful ways. Quick and decisive implementation is critical because by the time employees return to their jobs, research shows they’ve already forgotten much of what they learned.
Setting the expectation of evaluation also allows the organization to underscore the tangible benefits trainees can expect from it. Over the years, we’ve seen the effectiveness of our training increase exponentially when a manager who’s been through a program opens subsequent sessions by sharing quantifiable endorsements such as, “There isn’t a day I don’t use these skills” or “Almost every sale I’ve made the last 15 years is because of this training.”
Benefits from this approach don’t just flow down the org chart. Several years after participating in one of our programs, a partner in a business services firm remarked that his enhanced skills not only boosted his credibility with staff members who later participated in the training, but also made him a more valued internal coach. Training follow-up also has the power to expand workplace relationships through meetings with other employees who previously completed the training. These gatherings can be especially valuable because peer encouragement and critiques generally are much more informed than feedback from managers who haven’t previously participated.
Post-training expectations should focus on progress, not perfection.
What about, in the case of the client I mentioned early on, the high expectations of her bosses? While the training we provided offered a proven model and real-world simulations, her bosses’ expectations that a single day of training would create a communications superstar were simply unrealistic. What alternative approach could have ensured that she would build on her training experience to achieve results that would benefit her organization?
First off, give ample opportunities to practice what was learned. Even with the most realistic training scenarios, “people often underestimate the emotional challenges they experience when they have to switch cultural behavior and act outside of their cultural comfort zones,” Andy Molinsky, a professor of international management and organizational behavior at Brandeis International Business School, pointed out. To build employees’ self-confidence and prepare them for the discomfort and anxiety they’re likely to experience as they ingrain new skills into their more automatic professional behavior, they should be allowed to gradually transition from safe to higher-stakes environments.
For example, in the case of public speaking skills, a trainee’s chances of success greatly improve with a measured progression over time, beginning with brief, internal presentations, then graduating to speaking before small, cohesive gatherings that may include clients and customers, suppliers or professional groups. At that juncture, employees and managers should assess whether skills have improved and expanded enough to tackle longer presentations before larger, more intimidating audiences. As a colleague counsels -- look for progress, not perfection.
Personally assessing individual trainees and their sweet -- and weak -- spots is also important. For my client’s scientist-leader, she was less challenged by the high-stakes crowd she would address, and more intimidated by the length of time her bosses expected her to carry the room, 45 minutes or longer. Her odds of success would increase dramatically if her inaugural outing instead was a 10-minute presentation.
While such post-training follow-up should be thoughtful and consistent, it doesn’t need to be expensive or excessively time-consuming. Without it, however, research shows that change will be too daunting for most employees to achieve on their own. The bottom line is that workplace training can pay big dividends, but its ultimate success will depend on the active engagement of many more people than the trainee alone.