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  • Writer's pictureLouise Carnachan

Sentenced to Mandatory Training

The public servant was given probation and community service. In my estimation, it was a slap on the wrist for heinous crimes. Fifteen hours of compulsory diversity curriculum was included in the sentence, but I wonder if that will modify a pattern of bigotry.

This is a piece about mandatory training. I have guidance for decision makers as well as those who are sentenced to attend. There are times when I believe mandating works and times you might as well save your money. And I have hints for those who don’t want to be there. (Of course, instructional strategies are a game changer to one’s experience but I’m not going there, even though we all know poorly designed training—whether voluntary or not—is tortuous.)

There’s legally required training including things like traffic school or continuing education to obtain/retain a professional license. In that bucket would be training needed for individual or institutional credentialing. Then there’s obligatory training to keep up with technological changes, however, I’m not addressing those. The mandatory training I’m speaking about is that which is used to teach or reinforce desired interpersonal conduct at work.

I’ve taught communication and leadership skills series for the purpose of exposing everyone to the same philosophical constructs and skill sets. The hope of executives and/or human resources is that if everyone participates, the training will result in a cultural change in the organization—or at the very least reduce lawsuits for egregious, abusive or harassing behavior.

Compulsory sessions are typically initiated by an executive team who expend substantial resources to fix a problem. The most significant cost to the company is the loss of productive time, the hours spent in the classroom (online or in-person). Once the training is kicked off, all (or a subset of) employees are sentenced to attend. This is an attempt to drive change from the bottom up rather than the top down. Individuals in the C suite may not take the training or even be good models of the behaviors demanded of the rank and file.

I haven’t found that type of training to be all that successful in effecting a culture shift. My first experience with this came from the School of Hard Knocks when my business partner and I taught a leadership skills series for a large public agency. The course was mandated for everyone with supervisory authority—all but the executive ranks, that is. Leadership training is based on some underlying philosophy, so we asked what the top leaders wanted to reinforce. The answer was they didn’t know, and they weren’t interested in discovering it. "Use your own judgment,” we were told. During that particular meeting, the CEO walked out leaving us dumbstruck. We finally asked if it was something we’d said and one of the VPs replied, “Oh, he does that all the time. He has a short attention span.” Hmmm.

For three years we doggedly trained over four hundred directors, managers, and supervisors. The CEO position turned over three times. No wonder they had no leadership philosophy. It became clear to me there would be no lasting organizational impact. Since I care about results, I needed to come to terms with my part in it. I took consolation in believing that if one person became a more skilled and humanistic leader, they would positively impact others—and potentially a lot of people if they were early in their careers. I held that thought as each cohort came through because you never know what people will leave with; it isn’t always obvious at the time. Yet, there were some lovely payoffs, including the senior manager who came to me with tears in his eyes and said, “I had no idea how much I was hurting people. Thank you for teaching me what to do instead.” With a reaction like that, you have to assume there will be change that ripples out. And as rewarding as those moments were, systemic organizational change doesn’t occur with individual epiphanies. It truly takes a village full of people who are following direction from the top.

Executives, please be aware that mandatory training by itself will not fix your company’s ills. Doing it to check a box and appear as if you are solving a problem is window dressing and a waste of resources. Save your money and people’s time. Put your effort into assessing the culture as well as your own leadership team. Obtain expert advice so you can work on the real issues, then measure and reward improvements. Once the foundation is set, then do organization-wide training. And please show up, at least for the truncated executive version. You have no idea how impactful your actions are in either impressing or dismaying others. If you don’t engage, folks will grumble about your lack of humility and complain about how you don’t have the skills everyone else is being taught. Don’t convey that you’re too important to participate or that you already know it all.

Now, for those who have found themselves in a dreaded mandatory training—I hope you will take this to heart. If you don’t want to be there, believe me, I wish you didn’t have to be. If it were up to me, I’d give you a pass. When you walk in with thin lips and crossed arms, it benefits no one. A predetermination that it will be a colossal waste of time, will make it that. As for the trainer, trying to introduce ideas into a closed mind is like attempting to pour water into a jar that has the lid firmly screwed tight. So even if you think the content stinks, my invitation is to make the most of it by using the time to listen to peers, network or enjoy getting away from your pressure cooker job for a few hours. Some people may want to learn, let them. Don’t be a negative drain. Besides, you never know when a random good idea might float your way.

Even in voluntary-attendance sessions, I’ve seen unhappy people. Maybe it was because they’d been “nominated” to attend, diagnosed as needing it. Or it was just a bad day, an inconvenient time or something else. I tried to find out when possible. If they were really distracted, I’d suggest they spend their time where they needed to be, not in the classroom. If they’d been pushed to show up to be “fixed,” ouch. That hurts. Sadly, this type of sentencing is usually done without any conversation about the issue, just a “go take this, it’ll do you good.” Managers, please don’t do this to your staff. Let them know what you’re hoping they’ll get from a recommended training and why you recommended it. The “why” is the feedback you’ve been dodging rather than directly stating. The trainer can’t deliver that message for you. It’s time to use your words and let them know (in person, not in email or text, please). It just might prompt a desire to learn. If all they have to go with is the implication that they are the problem, they show up offended and unsure what the issue is.

Coming back to the man who had been sentenced to fifteen hours of diversity training, I hope something positive results. Being fired can crack open one’s vulnerability and prompt change, but I confess I’m not very optimistic. The court ordered program is probably canned online training, but if by any chance it’s live, I don’t envy the those presenting the content. It’s difficult subject matter to begin with, no doubt they frequently find people’s attitudinal lids screwed on tight. But professional trainers tend to be optimistic about the capacity for transformation or they couldn’t do what they do. Since we can’t always predict what will happen with someone over time, we have to keep an open mind. You just never know.

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