Six Rules of Training Every Manager Should Know
Updated: Nov 7
For most of my career, I built training programs and tools that support training (e.g., job-aids, performance support tools, instructional software, games, videos, etc.). Today, I coach leaders (managers, directors, executives, supervisors, aspiring leaders) on issues ranging from systems-thinking, problem-solving, building better communication skills, and (of course) the development and use of training. And I'm often astonished at how little managers seem to know about how training works.
Just last week, for example, I found myself smiling when a sales manager asked me for "seven yards of training." Okay, he didn't say "seven yards of training," but it was close—"I'd like you to help my people learn to work better with each other. Y'know... communicate better, especially with co-workers and customers who are different than them. Oh, and I can give you two hours." [Yep. Two hours. We're not going to accomplish much in two hours. You can't order training like you would fabric or an omelette. Well, you can, but you're not likely to get what you want out of it. 😉]
So, our conversation wound around and ended up focusing on what you can and can’t reasonably expect from training programs—and in particular, when it comes to skill-building, the essential nature of practice. We don't learn without practice. Athletes and musicians know this, but in business it seems we tend to ignore this.
My favorite source for thinking about the essentials of training is Bob Mager's book What Every Manager Should Know About Training. It's a brilliant and short book (and if I ran the world I'd put on the reading list of every manager).
Here's a wildly shortened recap of Mager's six rules:
Rule One – Training is appropriate only when two conditions are present: (1) there is something that one or more people don’t know how to do, and (2) they need to be able to do it.
Most managers I work with seem to know Rule #1 intuitively; the situation in which I most often find myself pointing to this rule is when the timing for training doesn't seem right—when people may not know how to perform a given task, but they also don’t necessarily need to do it right now. In that case, I recommend a well-crafted job-aid or a simple eLearning module or video than can be called up as a reference when needed.
Training is appropriate only when (a) there is something that one or more people don’t know how to do, and (b) they need to be able to do it.
Rule Two – If they already know how, more training won’t help.
There’s a sick joke in the training industry, “If you hold a gun to someone’s head and you ask them to perform a task, and you find that they can do it, it’s not a training issue.” The joke is just a different way of stating Rule #2. I think the reason this joke exists (i.e., people tend to find it funny) is two-fold:
It illustrates a fundamental truth about training requests (that they’re not always necessary).
It’s a lot easier to point to training as a reason people aren’t doing what they’re “supposed” to do than it is to carefully examine the other environmental factors that effect performance.
Speaking of other environmental factors, let’s look at the next rule.
Rule Three – Skill alone is not enough to guarantee performance. Successful performance requires these four conditions: skill, an opportunity to perform, self-efficacy, and a supportive environment.
In conversations with my clients, I refer to Rule Three more than any other. If I coach or teach your leaders, I want it to "stick" just as much as you do. The most common reason people don't continue to perform behaviors taught during training is this: the environment into which leaders return, after training, is not supportive of what was taught.
The most common reason people don't continue to perform behaviors taught training is the environment into which trainees return, after training, is not supportive of what was taught.
In order to create or confirm that supportive environment, it takes only a little extra time and effort on the front ends of projects, but it pays off.
When assessing the environment, look for several things:
Expectations and Feedback — Do the performers in the field know and understand what they are expected to accomplish, under what conditions, and how well they are performing in relation to those expectations?
Tools and Resources — Do the performers have the tools they need? And the work processes to guide them? This may include expert consultants/colleagues, reference documentation, system access, and environmental variables (i.e., heat, light, other general human factors).
Consequences and Incentives — What are the intended and inadvertent consequences of behavior, both monetary and non-monetary? Are there negative consequences built into the work processes that punish doing the right thing (e.g., failure by other departments to fulfill orders)? What are the informal social consequences of performance — both positive or negative?
Skill alone is not enough to guarantee performance. Successful performance also requires an opportunity to perform, self-efficacy, and a supportive environment.
Rule Four – You can’t store training. If you don’t use it, you lose it. If learned skills are not exercised regularly, they will deteriorate.
Again, this is seemingly intuitive. At the same time, I find that managers often mis-think this, or don’t plan for it, especially when they roll out training without adequate support for those who don’t use it right away. Job-aids, brief eLearning modules, and/or videos, along with structured on-the-job practice (e.g., peer-coaching), can be great ways to help people refresh on skills they haven’t used in a while.
Only managers, not trainers, can be held accountable for on-the-job performance.
Rule Five – Good trainers can guarantee skill, but they can’t guarantee on-the-job performance.
Good, professional trainers can usually prove by the end of a training program that people can perform certain skills, but they have little-to-no influence once those people return to the field. That brings us to Rule Six.
Rule Six – Only managers, not trainers, can be held accountable for on-the-job performance.
Trainers can get you skills and self-efficacy, but you, the manager, are in charge of the opportunity to perform and providing a supportive environment.
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