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Tinkering With Training


April 2014 – Vol: 37 No. 4
by William A. Stevenson

When there's a performance problem, ask the right questions to find the right solution.

Hands reaching for lots of colorful cogsOur dictionaries describe “training” with phrases like “coaching,” “familiarizing or making accustomed,” “making proficient with instruction or practice,” even “manipulating.” We wouldn’t argue about the accuracy of any of these terms. After all, that’s what the dictionary says and we’ve all been trained to accept what the dictionary tells us, right? Of course!

But how many of us have been frustrated, disappointed, even angry at times with the lackluster results of training programs or our own lack of success in training others to do their jobs? Most of us, probably. On one hand, we understand the need for people to know what’s expected of them and the need to provide them with the information and wherewithal to do it. At the same time, when we think we’ve done all we can to make sure they are equipped and ready to go, we don’t always see the results we wanted and expected. We begin to question whether they “get it” or not—or worse, if they ever will.

Before we go any further, permit me to set the “expectations bar.” We aren’t going to solve all your training problems, whatever they may be. We are not going to delve deeply into motivational theory or the unique ways in which adults learn or the outside influences that affect job performance or the relative merits of competing management styles and their effects on employees or ... or ... or …. Rather, we are going to look at a pretty simple process—a problem-solving process—that can help ferret out some of the more common reasons for training that misses the mark and doesn’t yield what we hope for.

More Training is Not Always the Answer

A common reaction to a performance problem, whether it’s with an individual or a group, is to conclude up front that the right training will fix it. We begin to scour all known training resources for the “right” seminar that will set the person straight; give him the skills he lacks or reveal his need to adjust his personal style; or address whatever we have identified as the root cause of his problem. “Therein lies the rub,” as they say. In one easy step we have diagnosed the problem as “his” and have written the prescription to solve it for him and us.

What’s missing is a simple analysis that can help get at the root of the performance discrepancy. It involves asking a series of questions, including:

  • Specifically, what is the problem? What isn’t happening that should be happening? What isn’t getting done?
  • What are the operational consequences that flow from not getting the desired performance?
  • Does it matter? (Sometimes it doesn’t or at least not very much.)
  • Have the current performance expectations been made clear? Have they changed over time without being redefined and communicated to the person or people involved? Are we even sure we know what they are?
  • Is feedback occurring as it should? Is it specific, frequent and done in a timely manner? Does it give the employee enough to go on to adjust what she is doing to meet the expectations that we have in mind?
  • Are consequences for performing (or not) meaningful and appropriate? Has it mattered in the past or has inadequate performance been tolerated enough to make it seem acceptable? Are there any consequences at all for either good or poor performance?
  • Conversely, has good performance become punishing? Has the good performer become the “go to” person to a point that her performance is compromised by the sheer volume of what she is being required to do?

Case Study

Perhaps a brief case example would help to illustrate the value of asking these questions and how the analysis can inform the conclusion and resolution of the “problem.”

Problem: A recently appointed department director reviewed the accountabilities of his department managers as part of his orientation. He noticed that one manager has specific responsibility for leading a staff committee that oversees the company’s diversity program. He also noticed a disturbing lack of information about the committee’s activity for the last three years. In prior conversations with this manager, the diversity initiative has not received much attention and the people assigned to the committee seem unenthusiastic about their mission. Diversity is important to the organization. It serves a widely diverse community and wants to show its commitment as a core corporate value.

Solution (albeit misguided): Rather than berate the manager involved, the department director decided, “We need to reinvigorate our diversity initiative. We’ll bring in a local consultant to underscore our commitment. The manager chairing the seemingly inactive committee will organize the training for the committee and will have a specific assignment to restore the visibility and importance of diversity in the organization.”

What the director would have learned had he slowed down and asked a few questions: Yes, it’s true: (1) the committee hadn’t even met for almost three years; and (2) the annual report to the president on diversity goals and activities hadn’t been completed for the last two years. This is an obvious dereliction of duty, an accountability ignored and one based on a core corporate value.

BUT, what was discovered later was that when the report had been submitted in prior years, no one acknowledged receiving it, let alone commented on it. No one got any recognition for their work, not even the manager who chaired the committee. Attendance dropped off at scheduled meetings and the manager was unable to get committee members to come. Eventually, he gave up. No one cared. He decided to ignore the annual report and scheduling more meetings. Guess what happened? Nothing!

So what solution would the department director have come to had he followed the questioning process described earlier? Let’s review.

  • Specifically, what is the problem? He knew some of what had been happening. But was that enough? Probably not. He thought he knew enough to act but did he?
  • What are the consequences and does it matter that the committee was dormant? Sure, it mattered because this is a core corporate value. But is it … really? What evidence suggests it is a priority? It’s a little thin, from the manager’s perspective.
  • Are expectations clear? They were in the beginning but are they now? It’s hard to tell.
  • Did the manager’s other responsibilities take on more importance, enough for him to convince himself to let this one go? We don’t know but it’s a possibility.
  • Is feedback occurring as it should? No. Is there encouragement from others? Or questions about what the committee’s work? Have ideas been offered to the committee or its chair? Recognition? What’s that? Missing altogether!
  • Any consequences for not performing? Or performing as expected? No. Conclusion of the chair and the committee: “lf no one else cares, why should l? I have more important things to do.”
  • Is good performance actually punishing? Yes, it was in this case but everyone, even the chair, figured out how to escape the punishment. Just don’t show up and keep a low profile.

An entirely different scenario could have played out if the well-meaning, but misguided, department director had asked a few questions about this obvious performance shortfall. Let’s suppose that “ yes,” diversity is still among the top corporate values and priorities. Where is the performance discrepancy then? What is needed to revive it, to raise its profile in the organization? Is that the responsibility of the committee chair? Yes, in part but others have a stake in this issue. It’s bigger than a mere routine committee assignment.

So what did occur as a result of the department director’s plan? The committee chair got a mild scolding and a pep talk about the importance of diversity. He coordinated the training of the committee by the consultant. He reported on the semi-monthly committee meetings, prepared quarterly progress reports on the affirmative action goals, published a new diversity brochure, and (most important) did the annual report faithfully. In short, the department director got compliance, while committee participation languished, and the committee chair got discouraged but did what he had to do. Not a good outcome.

Was training appropriate in this situation? Yes, but not the training that was imposed by the department director. It didn’t come close to addressing the underlying issues—a manager who needed encouragement and coaching on how to speak up effectively when needed and an organization’s leadership that may have lost sight of one of its core values.

Granted, not all performance issues have the kind of implications apparent in this example. Many are as simple as training or retraining on a skill set that has become rusty from infrequent use.

Others are resolved simply by removing obstacles that get in the way of doing a job well, like providing the right resources to get it done. Still others require only clarifying job expectations, maybe adjusting responsibilities to get them to reasonable levels. There are almost endless possibilities that can be explored before jumping to the “training” quick fix.

Asking the right questions pays big dividends and will add focus to the training you do and leverage the resources used for real training more effectively.

Who wouldn’t cheer for that?

William A. Stevenson is a consultant on organization planning and leadership development and a freelance writer in Madison, Wis.

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