Management Articles


Be Wary of Training to Solve Performance Problems

By: Robert H. Kent, Ph.D., CMC

President of The Mansis Development Corporation, Dr. Kent is a specialist in the structure and management of small and medium-sized organizations, and frequently serves as a personal coach and management consultant to executives for solving their management and employee performance problems. Before founding his consulting company, Bob held senior management and executive positions in federal and provincial government and private corporations. He has been a director of several health care and service organizations and a consulting member of private and government task forces in the areas of government finance, organization structure, personnel management and executive development. Since 1972 he has lectured in management at several Canadian and American universities in the faculties of Management, Administrative Studies, Medicine and Continuing Education where he has been an award winner for excellence in teaching and professional expertise; and he has published over 125 books and articles on management.

Your employees are not performing up to your expectations. They seem unmotivated and show little care for quality or customer service. What should you do? Train your employees and their supervisors better? Not necessarily. Be very careful before you spend time and money on a training program to improve things. You could easily waste thousands of dollars and lose a lot of credibility with your employees.

Billions of dollars are spent annually on training employees, and a lot is wasted, costing organizations and their managers millions in profits and personal credibility. This is because so much training is directed towards treating the symptoms of problems, and nothing is resolved.

Too often, training programs result from a "training needs survey" with a shopping list of topics selected by your employees, such as leadership, coping with stress, performance appraisal, problem solving, customer service, motivating employees and time management. This list is then presented to your company trainers, outside consultants or training vendors who eagerly fill the order and give you what your business apparently wants. But the result can seriously hurt your company.

Some Common Scenarios.

Case #1 Worried about low productivity and signs of general employee unrest, the company surveyed the supervisors and discovered that the supervisors wanted more training in communication, leadership, employee motivation, performance appraisal, conflict resolution and stress management. A similar survey of non-management employees revealed their low trust in management, as well as perceived favoritism, poor communication and "dictatorial management practices." As a result, a shopping list of workshop topics was tendered out to a training company and a program was initiated to teach these concepts and skills to the supervisors. After a six month period in which the training activity raised expectations that things were going to improve, the company once again fell into a productivity slump and the employees appeared as disillusioned as ever.

Case #2 A particularly nasty foreman had a well-documented reputation for insensitivity and was understandably disliked by almost everyone he worked with or supervised. The President asked the company training supervisor to find a course that could make this foreman get along with other people, and to get the foreman to take it. After weeks of searching, the training supervisor finally discovered that a workshop on "How to Deal With Difficult People" was swinging through town, so he registered the foreman. The foreman attended but his destructive behavior persisted and he was as ineffective as ever.

What Should Have Happened

Case #1 Looking for training needs presupposes that a lack of skills is the cause of the problem. There's a training adage that asks the question: "If the employee's life depended on doing the task, could he/ she do it? If he could (i.e. with the ultimate motivation) then training isn't the solution because a skill deficiency isn't the cause of the problem." Were the supervisors really incapable of communicating with their employees, or conducting appraisal interviews, or encouraging their employees to perform?

But if the supervisors honestly believed that they needed training in performance appraisal or conflict resolution or employee motivation, then the question that must be asked is "Why?" Why do they think they need training in motivating employees? Why do they think they need performance appraisal training? What is the real problem they want to solve?

Conducting better performance appraisal interviews in usually not going to solve a performance problem when the real cause is a lack of clear direction, or unrealistic performance standards, or that insufficient time is given to the supervisors to properly lead, direct and coach their employees. Learning about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs will do nothing for the manager who's demotivated employees are turned off because they see rampant favoritism and double standards throughout the company.

If a high percentage of the survey respondents selects, for example, employee motivation as a training need, then all we know for certainty is that "employee motivation" triggered a response in those individuals. We will not know why they were moved to select that topic until we ask them. It would be more useful if we could ask them "what do you want to be able to do, and why?"

Surveying supervisors to discover what they feel they need "to be able to do" is a far more effective approach than to ask them to select from a list of training topics. But that still raises a more fundamental question that seriously challenges the validity of even behavior-based training surveys -- and it's related to case #2 as well.

Case #2 As the saying goes, "what's wrong with this picture?" How come the business in case #1 needs to conduct a survey to find out that supervisors feel they lack the skills to do their jobs successfully? Why must the company survey employees to clarify that communication is poor and management practices are seriously lacking?

And as in case #2, why is it that a foreman or a supervisor is being paid to do a job but without the skills required to do so? How come senior management has allowed this to happen? Isn't it the responsibility of the supervisor of the nasty and insensitive foreman to support and coach the foreman to perform appropriately? Perhaps the skills lacking in the company are the skills to manage the foremen -- as are the skills to manage the supervisors to manage the foremen!

In both cases, the poorly performing supervisors and foremen are symptoms of the real problem which is the absence of company processes for selecting, leading, coaching and developing employees and for ensuring that these processes are properly and consistently used by all management.

Lessons To Be Learned

I've found that many trainers and training companies don't understand how organizations work. Often they are training and education specialists who portrait themselves as management consultants. They prescribe training solutions to problems which when properly diagnosed are not training-related problems. Too often training vendors fill orders for courses and the unsuspecting client assumes that the training will benefit the company and the individuals attending. As a result, funds are drained from the business, whatever problems may have existed remain, the health of the business is jeopardized, and the employees begin to question the judgment and credibility of management.

As an analogy, if your friend's personal health was poor, and she suffered from dizziness and was always exhausted, would you recommend that she contact a drug salesperson to find out what pills she should take to stop the dizziness and to boost her energy? I don't think so. At the very least, if she did, we'd expect that the salesperson would act professionally and direct her to seek proper diagnosis for the symptoms she was presenting.

Why, then, whenever supervisors aren't doing their jobs correctly, do we automatically send them away for another dose of supervisory training?

Many times a deficiency in employee performance (both management and non-management performance) is a symptom of an organizational design problem, and not what seems more obvious, i.e. an individual skill deficiency. What's missing is a systematic process for managing the performance of all employees -- similar in concept to the other systems any organization requires for managing money and assets or for manufacturing its product or service. Focusing on an individual's apparent skill deficiency will not solve the performance problem, when the problem is the absence of fundamental processes that should be present in any business.

The solution is to implement a systematic approach to manage employee performance throughout the business, (making this system a tangible company asset) teach the system to everyone concerned, and then use the system's processes and skills to ensure that the system itself is consistently used correctly by everyone. Training would then be part of the process to implement a change in the organization, and not just a means to try and change some offending individual's symptomatic behavior or attitude.

© Copyright 2001 The Mansis Development Corporation

Other Articles by Robert H. Kent, Ph.D., CMC

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