I recently peer reviewed an early draft of a colleague’s training activity where he had to introduce a new corporate framework that employees are required to use in their work to a new group of employees who had never seen it or worked with it before. The first half of the training was a lecture introducing and explaining the concept, and the interactive activity was a sticky note brainstorm session where groups had to come up with all the benefits of using this new framework in their own jobs — right after learning about it for the first time.
I have seen this training mistake several times over the years, so I’ve dubbed it the “this is important, tell me why it’s great” fallacy. Let me explain the different facets of this scenario and what’s wrong with each:
This fallacy takes for granted that this content is “important” without doing the hard work of letting learners experience for themselves what’s genuinely good or useful about it. The truth is that they’re required by management to use this new framework, so whether it’s actually good or not is glossed over. The bosses want it taught so it gets taught. Our poor trainer is put in the position of force-feeding information to an unwitting population with no intrinsic desire to acquire it.
The fallacy also puts learners in the position of having to instantly come up with reasons why this new framework is the best idea ever and is such an improvement over whatever we were doing yesterday. It can become an exercise in “[yes-man syndrome](This Is What Happens Inside The Brain Of A ‘Yes Man’)” as learners obligingly concoct some word salad that seems to fulfill the assignment. It may look likey the’re successfullly participating but these “teacher-pleasing behaviors” are not a good indicator that learners will actually remember or use the new material in their work.
Lastly, I often see the “this is important/tell me why it’s great” lesson in trainings where trainers and stakeholders just haven’t explicitly defined the intended outcomes of the training. Even in compliance-oriented training like this, you must articulate how learners will be changed as a result of the experience. What new Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes will learners gain? What effect is this training designed to have on a specific business problem, and how can we observe and measure the change once it’s occurred? Taking the time and effort to think this step out will lead you to develop more engaging and effective trianing.
Unequal Power Dynamics
As educators, we must be sensitive to the implicit power dynamics at play when we teach learners. In this scenario the new framework is being imposed upon employees by their more powerful superiors with little consideration for employees’ voice or choice in the matter. If we’re not careful and self-critical, we teachers can become mere instruments of control, enforcing the power inequalities in the organizations we work within. At our best, though, we can be advocates for learners’ dignity, self-determination, and empowerment in situations like this. In this case, we need to answer for ourselves the question of “how will this new information make a real improvement in learners’ lives?”
Making it make sense
To help my colleague, I started asking questions about the audience and the new framework, trying to get a deeper understanding of how it might actually make their lives better. What is the role of these employees? What are their main priorities in their everyday work? What kinds of challenges do they routinely face? And what features of the new framework can genuinely add value to the way they work? If they can walk away from the training with two or three new tricks they can use to provide better service to customers, do we consider that a “win”?
I learned that the framework is mainly for sales people, but the audience of this training is marketing people. The goal of the training is to help those marketing people better understand how the salespeople sell so the two groups can be better aligned in their strategy. This all leads up to a company-wide goal of working like one company, transcending siloes, and showing a unified face to our customers.
The marketing employees come in with lived experience about times when they were not properly aligned with sales, so we decided to make Step 1 of the brainstorming session “Describe the challenges you face aligning with Sales”. At this step, they generate a set of real-world problems they themselves have experienced.
Step 2 refers them to the new information, the Sales Framework, to look at it in light of these identified challenges. What features of the Sales Framework can be used to address each alignment challenge? At this stage, “challenge” stickies are matched to newly created “framework soiutions” stickies that illustrate clearly how the framework solves real problems.
Step 3 then becomes a metacognitive review where learners restate/ present/ share out their durable takeaways about how they will use the new framework to solve issues going forward.
Extrinsic to Intrinsic motivation
Through this process, we have shifted the learner’s motivation for learning this material from extrinsic (to please the bosses or avoid trouble) to intrinsic (developing tools to overcome each learner’s own work frustrations). Even though the unequal balance of power between management and employees remains — the framework is being rolled out either way — our training helps them discover how the framework can add real value to their work.
More effort, greater rewards
As you can see, this approach forces us to ask hard questions about the real value of training. Sometimes it puts us in the position of questioning the authority of powerful people in our organizations and challenging them to take greater care with employees’ time and attention. This has led to some raised eyebrows and tense meetings, but stakeholders sense that these are questions worth asking and that I’m right to raise them.
Often, it requires us to learn the content itself deeply enough that we can see the real connections we’re expecting learners to make. If we cannot see at the outset how the new framework is worth these learners’ time, then it’s our job to keep learning and asking questions until we undergo the change we want to make in learners.
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