Getting To Yes
Ok, it’s Monday morning and your boss walks into your office and tells you that the senior group wants your learning effort done sooner than planned. Or maybe, one of the division managers mentions to you how worried they are about how their team will achieve the recently revised performance targets. Or possibly, you decided to ask your boss or an operational manager for more resources or money.
More often than not, you’re answering directly to an operational manager. Your role will require reporting directly to the learning manager, but it is more relevant for you to report back to an operational leader requiring your support. But here’s the thing, operational managers, learning or otherwise, get pulled in several directions and have to address numerous demands. They’re the ones who actually make things happen and get things done. They’re the ones expected to take what their bosses envision and make it actionable.
The issue is that they’re also referred to as “sandwich” leaders. They’re held accountable for their bosses’ demands (you know, senior management), while also balancing the demands and needs of their employees. Their bosses, the senior group, will regularly shift their targets as a result of evolving environments, whereas employees are always looking for more resources to get their jobs done. So naturally, it’s operations—the managers and the staff—who need you, the person responsible for learning, the most, whether they realize it or not. They’re your internal customer, or, as they say in marketing, your target market.
Even though operations will be your typical target market, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I say they’re also usually the most resistant to anything you propose, especially if it doesn’t address their concerns in a timely manner. This resistance, and at times negativity, stems from the pressure they face to meet immediate demands. Since operational activities must happen quickly, disrupting/interrupting/displacing workflow productivity is never a popular option with them. Doing so only compounds the performance pressures they’re under, to deliver results.
5 Tactics For Overcoming Resistance To Learning Programs
Dealing with this target group of operational managers often feels like a futile and frustrating exercise for many practitioners. Even though it seems like you’re facing a no-win scenario, there are five practical tactics to overcome their resistance and negativity to learning programs.
1. Focus On Helping The Manager And Employees Meet Their Goals
I know this sounds like an obvious point and the reason you are attempting to gain their support. The purpose of any learning solution is to do just that, to help learners achieve their objectives. While this is your intent, the obstacle, counterintuitively, is often the learning solution itself. Too often, practitioners get too wrapped up in the “what” and “how” of the learning effort, and lose focus on “why” it’s needed in the first place.
Consequently, a wonderful effort is produced that focuses on “learning,” often at the expense of aligning with the stated operational objectives. Listen, it’s not intentional—it’s just that the operational expectation (meeting their goals) gets lost in the minutia of the design, and the focus on the doing or the application of the skills is lessened. Keep this in mind: for operational leaders, and by extension for the employees, it’s about the doing (application and adoption of the new skills) rather than the learning of them.
To avoid this happening, and also to design a focused and robust learning solution, start by learning about the operations. Meet up with the operational manager and become their therapist, lending an ear to discover what their preoccupations, worries, and most pressing concerns are. Simply put, learn about their business. Doing so provides you with one or more starting points.
Knowing this information will allow you to conduct a proper and very targeted and focused skills assessment with the operational team. This will build the operational manager’s confidence in your efforts and avoid their future cognitive dissonance when asked to spend money on what they may have seen as a lackluster training intervention. And most relevant, you’ll gain employee support by acknowledging what they require to improve their performance and meet their manager’s expectations.
Here’s a quick example. Assume a company is experiencing an increase in product returns due to a defect. You’d first meet with the key operational managers, like production and sales, to learn why the products are being returned. Assuming it’s a manufacturing issue, learn about the process and whether any changes have occurred. Next, conduct a skills assessment with the manufacturing staff to ascertain any skills or process gaps. Finally, collaborate with the manager and staff to discuss possible learning approaches to help improve the process.
2. Recognize That Operational Managers Manage The Money And Resources
The second tactic to overcoming resistance is to recognize that operational managers typically manage the money and resources that you will require to design and develop your proposed learning solution. Never blindly design a learning effort without their input, and finding out how it will affect their budget and resource allocations.
Meet with them to itemize costs and resource requirements for a variety of training scenarios. Allow them to give their input about how best to integrate the learning solution into their process, as this will help secure their support and ensure you have the money to deliver an effective solution. They need to know, since they’re paying for it. Let’s assume the sales manager must increase revenue by 10%. Work out the cost of developing a sales training effort, in comparison to purchasing an external, generic sales training program, as well as implementing online support, job coaching and any required software to track the team’s progress.
3. Measure What Matters To The Operational Leaders
The third tactic to overcoming resistance to learning efforts is for you to measure what matters, more precisely, measure what matters to the operational leaders. All operational managers have clearly defined performance pressures and must meet specific Key Performance Metrics, also known as KPIs. This is the needle you should help to move in a positive direction.
Recall when I mentioned that it’s all about employees applying the skills, not learning them? Well, KPIs are the metrics that will prove your learning effort is improving employee on-the-job performance, or the “doing” of your learning. Operational managers care less about how much their staff retains or even if they showed up to the training. They’re only interested in how you can help them get their people to meet the KPIs.
Previously, the sales manager had to meet a 10% revenue increase. After conducting a skills assessment, you discover that the sales team failed to close 18% of the sales engagements. After a chat with the sales director, you learn that if the team closes a quarter of these orders, they’ll easily exceed the 10% KPI. This means your training intervention must focus on sales closings and the ability to track training progress to ensure they meet the KPI.
4. Measure Where You Want To Go
The fourth tactic to overcoming resistance to learning efforts is to measure where you want to go. This means setting specific milestones to show how well your efforts are progressing. Like the previous point about KPIs, it’s important to have a destination and then work back from there. If you don’t have a clear destination, you will never add value. As Covey said, begin with the end in mind. Simply telling an operational manager that your training effort will address or even resolve their concerns is insufficient. Operational managers have little patience for talk and platitudes; they expect to see proof and tangible results.
In the previous sales example, it appears some sales reps weren’t following up with clients who were close to deciding on their purchase. A simple milestone to set up would be measuring the number of follow-up calls, based on the skills you shared in training. This simple metric shows the manager some evidence of a tangible output resulting from training.
5. Find Downtimes Or Slow Periods
The fifth tactic to overcoming resistance to learning programs is to find downtimes or slow periods. Remember when I said: operational managers are resistant to anything that causes work disruptions or interruptions. It’s not that they are against providing training, it’s that they need to do it when it won’t interfere in operational productivity. This is why it’s key for you to learn when their downtimes and slow periods are. It mitigates the manager’s, and even employees’, resistance significantly, since they’re not being slammed with productivity pressures.
Design and plan to implement your training effort when it’s less hectic or busy for them. Trust me, every business function has slow periods—this is the time you want to train employees. Or, reward employees for using their own off-time to take the training. The message here is that operational managers can’t afford to have their employees off the job. And unlike the learning of decades earlier, we live in a world where technology allows training to happen anywhere and at any time. Training can be limited and non-intrusive if your training design and your planning aligns with and respects operational needs.
There is a multitude of innovative training approaches and technologies that will allow you to minimize disruptions and seamlessly integrate learning into an employee’s daily routine. Leveraging these real-time learning design concepts and learning technology can reduce costs and impress operational managers. Most importantly, you’ll gain their respect as a result of your respect for the performance demands they must meet. Oh, and you will reduce their famous question resisting training, “why now?” Remember, for operational leaders, it’s not about the training, it’s always about the results.
Want To Develop This Skill?
As you can appreciate, one article will point you in the right direction but it only scratches the surface of the positive impact your learning efforts can have on the organization. Force yourself to go deeper and grow into the value you know learning can deliver to your business. eLearning Industry is offering a course to accompany you in your professional development. Enroll in their course, “How to Sell eLearning to Internal Stakeholders” at a limited special rate.
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