As learning leaders, all of us have faced “the class from hell.” Think back for a moment to that morning that you tried so hard to forget …
You were excited about the topic and inspired by your own notable performance during the train-the-trainer (everyone told you so). You prepared thoughtful slides, you wrote practical customized examples and you drafted two smart interactive activities from scratch.
As people enter the training room, you connect personally with each one. Yet, as folks silently fill their coffee cups and pick a muffin, you sense something isn’t right.
In the moments before you start, two-thirds of the audience settles into a fairly focused BlackBerry assault. They scowl and grimace. Two participants separately decide to take it to the next level and step into the hall to “make a quick call.” You offer a cheerful, “Good morning!” and receive a few muffled grunts.
This is a classroom filled with corporate prisoners. They didn’t ask to be here. They don’t want to be here. Although their bodies are present, their minds are far, far away. They got sent to this class, and others (first and foremost, you) are going to suffer.
What in the world are you going to do? How do you advise your trainers to handle such situations?
Let me suggest three approaches to managing the prisoner’s dilemma that have worked for many educators. Employ and impart this guidance effectively, and you will find yourself to be a better-loved leader. The smile sheets will be, well, smiley-er, and you will receive far less hate mail masquerading as “constructive feedback.”
First, as a leader, you have dramatic opportunities ahead of time to reduce the instances when your classroom trainers would face this kind of audience. For example, if your company institutes mandatory attendance for a required compliance course, make sure you offer the most logical and attractive alternatives possible such as online options and flexible training dates.
Another possibility: Give your trainers the authority to ask disruptive or disengaged participants to leave. Moreover, provide your trainers with the depth of knowledge and classroom skills to consistently keep smart people engaged and interested.
This sort of planning is essential. After all, nothing will pollute the reputation of your learning organization more than participants who felt they were hostages in the training room and lived to tell the story — over and over again.
Second, help your trainers make their own version of the following speech to participants: “There are three types of people in any classroom: prisoners, vacationers and engaged learners. My primary duty is to the active learners. If you are a vacationer, you’re here because class is ‘better than working.’ I invite you to join the learners. Consider the possibility that learning can be even more pleasant than coasting. To the rest of you, let me say everyone feels like a prisoner in a classroom at times. If you feel as if you have been forced or coerced to be here, you should know I am authorized to let you leave. Now, you might have to come back some other time, but you should decide now whether exercising a bit of freedom and discretion will make you a better learner later.”
Third, let’s assume you have managed your organization so that, most of the time, there is no reason for learners to feel trapped. Moreover, assume you routinely free prisoners to escape when it’s feasible. But you still have inmates.
Well, then, it is time to talk turkey with the incarcerated. At the first break, the trainer must approach the prisoners privately and discuss “natural consequences.” The trainer needs to ask the prisoners to leave and bear the responsibility for not attending this class.
Learning leaders have the responsibility to create the best environment possible for our trainers. Being the warden of a learning institution is often not an easy job, but perhaps it will be a little easier if you and your faculty follow my suggestions.
Fred Harburg is a private consultant, writer and speaker in the disciplines of leadership, strategy and performance coaching. He has held numerous international leadership roles at IBM, GM, Motorola and Fidelity Investments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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