There is actually research to this effect. We measured behavior change on the floor under two conditions. One, a professional trainer conducted the course. Two, a manager conducted the course. Guess who received the highest training marks? The trainer. Guess whose participants demonstrated the most change over the next six months? The manager (whose training scores, by the way, weren’t all that high).
The manager, despite his less-than-honed training skills, created the most change because he followed up on the material one-on-one, in meetings and every time he could work it into a conversation. Unlike the professional trainer who sent the participants off into the night, the manager’s training didn’t end when the participants exited the classroom. It started. OK, the original transfer of knowledge ended, but the practice and application to work started. Learning continued for months.
Now, the reason this particular trainer was able to follow up effectively with the participants was because the training content was “How to Hold Others Accountable.” The manager knew what to do and say when others let him down. He learned how to do this when he himself went through the training. So, when the classroom training he conducted ended and the supervisors he trained went back to work and failed to hold their direct reports accountable, the manager talked to them. He talked because he knew how to talk. He had been trained in the dos and don’ts of accountability. And when he talked, others listened. They listened to him for two reasons—ability and motive. He was skilled (ability), and he was the boss (motive). Combined, the two are a perfect set of choppers.
What are the implications of this research finding to learning in general? People are far too consumed with the exigencies of daily life to devote any time or attention to anything that fails the tooth test. They’d be fools to act otherwise. When you’re surrounded by alligators, bunnies don’t get your attention. This means everything you teach, everything participants take the time to learn, needs to start with real problems and end with accountability—both formal and informal.
Informally, bosses have to talk about, get excited about, and follow up on one issue: How have you implemented what you learned? They’re already talking about deadlines, safety, quality and yield—and you can bet the store that they’re speaking with passion and commitment. Given this constant competition for people’s attention, anything that comes off as a “by the way” won’t ever lead to change. “Did you meet the deadline? Did you? Did you? Did you?” “Did you meet the quality standard? Did you? Did you? Did you?” “By the way, how did the training go?”
“By the way” isn’t enough. By the way has no teeth. By the way is the mother of all flavors of the month. By the way means, “I have to bring this up because somebody somewhere cares about it, but you know it doesn’t really matter to me.” By the way is a secret agreement to do nothing.
So, what’s a person to do? First you have to provide training and other learning tools that people (i.e., the bosses) really want to see take hold in the organization. They have to view the learning as protection from one or more of the existing alligators. Start with alligators, and then develop tools to neutralize them. Start with alligators. If not, anything you do will fall “by the way.”
Second, people have to know how to hold participants accountable to actually implement what they learned. If you work in an organization where accountability is a bit of a crapshoot, training is in serious trouble. Training results, like all others, will be fairly random. Some things get done; others don’t. Training, fueled with good intentions and propelled by an occasional gumming, doesn’t stand a chance.
This means that you have to shore up accountability. People have to know how to hold on to their commitments. This skill lies at the heart of all organizational effectiveness. Why should learning be any different?
I stumbled on this particular insight some 20 years ago when I was asked by leaders of several companies to study supervisors, and then clone their best ones. I asked for a list of supervisors—the 10 best along with 10 others who were merely good. The list was alphabetical. I didn’t know who was who. My job was to watch these leaders at work, and then discover who were the best and who were the rest.
I quickly discovered that you could indeed tell the best from the rest. It was no mystery. Within minutes, the best distinguished themselves. How? They were masters of what we call “crucial confrontations.” When these occasions arose, they stepped up to people who others let get away with sloppy work or inappropriate behavior and held them accountable. And they did so in a way that not only addressed the problem (the teeth), but actually enhanced the relationship (but no bite).
It turns out, knowing how to hold a crucial confrontation is not merely a best practice, it’s the best of the best practices. It’s the one with the most leverage. Know how to facilitate a meeting—that’s good. Know how to give a presentation—that’s good. Know how to step up to people who aren’t doing what they promised—that’s terrific because everything gets better.
For instance, if you want people to implement a safety program, they must know how to confront those who fail to follow procedures. Face-to-face confrontations take over where banners and speeches leave off. If you want to succeed with a Six Sigma or quality effort, people have to know how to confront those who don’t follow procedure. Managers, supervisors and hourly employees alike must be motivated and able to step up to those who don’t follow the program—in the moment and face-to-face. Face-to-face discussions take over after the new procedures have been posted.
So, what lies at the heart of any learning environment? The ability to step up to crucial confrontations and hold them well. Hold them in a way that solves the original problem (the teeth), and do so in a way that improves the relationship (but no bite). In short, combine training that kills alligators with the ability to master crucial confrontations and learning transforms from a “By the way” to a way of life.
Kerry Patterson is co-author of New York Times bestselling book, “Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations and Bad Behavior (September 2004, McGraw-Hill).
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