When training employees, don’t be afraid of the emotional side
  • leadership
  • Blog post

When training employees, don’t be afraid of the emotional side

Imagine you’re going to train your managers on, say, compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and you have to either create the presentation yourself or choose a training package from an outside provider.

Imagine further that you’re one of the managers listening to the introduction to this training.

Which of these approaches would have more impact on you?

1) “Alice’s multiple sclerosis is affecting her ability to do her job as a store sales clerk, which involves a lot of walking and standing. Her manager, Gayle, feels sorry for Alice, but she’s understaffed and can’t afford to have an employee off the floor as often as Alice seems to be these days. So she recommends to the regional manager that they put Alice on a Performance Improvement Plan, stressing the need to be on the floor rather than resting in the break room, the bathroom or her car. After 90 days on the PIP, Alice’s presence on the floor hasn’t improved, so the company terminates her.

“Alice loses her health insurance, and she can’t afford COBRA. She has to pay out of pocket for her treatments while she’s trying to arrange coverage under the Affordable Care Act. She gets evicted from her apartment and has to go live with a married daughter. Ill and angry, Alice sues the department store chain under the ADA, and the company, irritated at the legal expense, fires Gayle. The regional manager gets a written warning but is allowed to stay.”

2) “The Americans With Disabilities Act requires that managers try to arrange reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.

“For someone with multiple sclerosis, for example, one reasonable accommodation might be a change in duties so that the job is less physically fatiguing. Other accommodations might include medical leave, a transfer to another position, job-sharing with another employee or a flexible schedule.

“If no accommodation can be found that doesn’t cause undue hardship for the employer, the manager may consider terminating the employee. But any such decision should be taken only in concert with higher management and/or HR.”

Why, not just How
I’ve exaggerated the first approach a little bit for effect, but you get the point. That way of attacking the subject would almost certainly prove far more effective at getting trainees to sit up and listen than the second approach.

Why? Because it engages the emotions.

If you want people to behave a certain way — or avoid behaving a certain way — you can’t just explain how you want them to act. You also need to explain why you want them to act that way. And in the scenario about Alice, any manager can see why he or she doesn’t want to behave like Gayle — because Gayle’s ill-advised managerial decision went a long way toward ruining Alice’s and her own life.

Risky territory
So why does so much training take the second, less effective approach? (Remember, in this case it focused exclusively on transferring knowledge about ADA accommodations and scrupulously avoided any incursion into emotional territory.)

I think it has to do with trainers themselves and their degree of risk-aversion. I’m not talking about legal risk, but rather the trainer’s personal sense that it somehow isn’t “safe” to talk to people about their deeply felt emotions.

Getting into the stuff that really drives motivation — emotions, fears, frustrations — feels risky. Trainees might resist, with greater or lesser degrees of resentment. They might tell the trainer to mind his or her own business. There might even be a knock-down, drag-out argument. It’s impossible to tell in advance exactly how every person will react when their emotions are touched.

But one thing is certain: If we trainers have the guts to go there, we’ll be more effective in the long run. If we really want to change behavior, we have to take the risk.

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