The quick-fix fallacy: Training is not enough to correct a skill deficiency

Training doesn’t guarantee behaviour change, says Robert Gentle.

“Sometimes I wonder why we even bother with training,” a senior insurance executive once lamented to me. “We send our people on all this these workshops, and nothing changes.”

You may have heard this kind of remark before. It is based on a particularly dangerous assumption, namely that there’s no skill gap that can’t be fixed with some quick classroom training, or perhaps an elearning session or two. Hey presto – and it’s done!

It’s an assumption shared by the attendees themselves: they come to the training session all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, often in holiday mood, on the assumption that there’ll be a miraculous transfer of knowledge and that they’ll emerge fully skilled afterwards.

That’s a bit like watching an episode of Masterchef and thinking that you can now whip up a perfect roast leg of lamb with all the trimmings, followed by a mouthwatering chocolate fondant soufflé.

The fact that you’ve just emerged from a presentation skills course doesn’t mean you’re immediately TED-talk ready

If learning is an iceberg, then the training session is just the tip – the visible part that everyone can see. The real work happens afterwards, back at one’s desk when the concepts are (hopefully) implemented, practised and eventually anchored. This easily takes ten times longer than the training itself. Not for nothing does the saying ‘practice makes perfect’ exist in most languages.

You know this from experience if you play, say, golf or tennis. Once your coach has identified what you need to do to improve your swing or your backhand, you go and practise it over and over again until it becomes part of your muscle memory.

Similarly, training needs to be anchored in the brain afterwards so that it becomes part of one’s ‘mental’ muscle memory. The fact that you’ve just emerged from a presentation skills course doesn’t mean you’re immediately TED-talk ready; but you do now have the tools to enable you to get there – eventually. As I always tell my delegates at the end of a training session: my work here is done; your work starts now.

Unfortunately, this extra work is not always done. The main reasons are lack of time, inertia or just plain old resistance to change. It’s far easier to fall back into one’s comfort zone, adopt just the easiest and most obvious of the training concepts, and carry on as before. A classic case of two steps forward, one step back.

If you’re a manager or department head with a specific skill gap you’re trying to overcome in your team, how do you avoid falling into the trap of the quick fix?

Firstly, manage your expectations and accept that deficiencies will not be miraculously resolved straight after the training. Secondly, plan for a post-workshop period during which the workshop concepts can be practised and anchored. Thirdly, attend the training yourself: this holistic approach can’t work unless it is driven from the top – and you probably need the training too.

The last factor is the most important: there’s nothing like the enthusiastic participation of the team leader to drive the change that a few hours of training on its own cannot bring about.

And that change, like the largest part of an iceberg, lies beneath the waterline.


About the author

Robert Gentle runs the writing-training company


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