I need to tell them they are idiots - politely

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Written by Paul Matthews on 18 January 2017

I was speaking with the sales manager of a prestigious international business school recently, and he said that he regularly has to tell people they are idiots. Seeing my look of surprise, he explained.

“We have a great reputation and people come to us wanting training courses, either custom built or from our portfolio. However, all too often, the person asking wants to buy this training without properly considering whether it will actually solve their problem. They want to spend sometimes huge amounts of money on a training programme that has been selected on the skimpiest, or even no evidence at all.”

“They are acting like idiots, and it’s my job to tell them they are idiots, and do it without offending them. After all, we don’t want to lose their business!”

He told me about his approach to work with these requests for training programmes where he steps back from the solution, and coaches his customer through a process starting from the original performance issue they have identified. I recognised this immediately as it is very similar to one I use.

Although it is not a conscious thought, people asking for training are often doing so based on the assumption that training = learning = behaviour change = better performance.

Is that true? Does that cause/effect sequence hold up under scrutiny?

What do you think?

When people come and ask you for training, and you look ‘under the skin’ of their request, can you see this assumption at play?

What do you do about it?

Now, I know you will ask questions about the learning required. After all you want to get the learning right, and properly aligned with the business needs. You want to be able to design and deliver the learning so it has a direct impact on performance and delivers an ROI. Correct?

But hold on. If this is your approach, you have fallen into almost the same trap as the person requesting the training. You are assuming that learning is needed to tackle the performance problem, so what you are doing is ‘learning consultancy’. You are starting from a position that assumes that learning will solve the problem.

However, you need to do performance consultancy first, before learning consultancy. You should ‘prove’ that there is a definite need for a learning solution before creating one. No matter how well aligned your learning solution is with the business, if it isn’t needed, it won’t be successful, and it’s a waste of money delivering it.

As my friend from the business school said, you need to go all the way back to the original performance issue and figure out what is causing that poor performance, and do so without assumptions as to the cause. He is well aware that most times that people don’t perform well it has more to do with things outside of them that inhibit their performance than their lack of knowledge or skill. Often people are competent within themselves, but rendered incapable by things outside of themselves.

If that is the case, and check your own experience to verify it, then automatically asking for training without a detailed performance diagnostic is the action of an idiot.

A performance diagnostic process, you can call it performance consultancy, will make visible the factors inhibiting the desired performance, and there are usually quite a few as most performance systems are complex ones. It is quite possible that a knowledge or skills gap is one of those factors, in which case some kind of learning intervention is needed. Even then, it does not mean training or e-learning is the answer. Performance support or some kind of workflow learning may be a far better solution.

In summary, do a decent performance diagnostics process first, and avoid being an idiot!


About the author

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy to find out more visit www.peoplealchemy.co.uk

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