How To Keep Trainees Engaged

how to keep trainees engagedThere are a hundred theories about how to best design training. The question is how do we know that these trainings are going to stick long term? What truly makes training great?

While doing research for an upcoming book, I have been attending and monitoring a number of different types of training courses that are offered. What I have found, regardless of the topic of the instructor, is that the courses are created very similarly.

There is a particular rhythm in which all of us structural designers create courses. For the most part, training works fairly well. On the other hand, the long-term impact of the training is generally not seen within the organization.

This phenomenon is called transfer rate. It is and has been very poor for decades.

A couple of examples of this are:

  • Very few learners, as low as 5%, applied what they had learned in the workplace. -Tannenbaum and Yukl (1992)
  • There are low transfer rates from training ranging from 10% to 30%, with most on the low end. – Stolovich (2000)

One example that I remember clearly is an event that was recently conducted to help leaders explain a title change to their employees. This all-day training was chocked-full of reasons, rationale, exercises, and action plans. But, in the end these leaders felt like they didn’t have what they needed to be successful.

Why did the training fail?

There’s growing evidence that training for adults needs to follow some methodologies that may be counter to what many instructional designers, and learners, are accustomed to. Trainers need to start focusing on the four key elements listed below in order to truly give a good training.


Let’s face it; we have the attention span of a gnat. Our ability to concentrate on anything for an extended period of time is growing shorter and shorter.

There is a great deal of evidence that shows how were attention span and its longest is 5 to 7 minutes. What that tells us as instructional designers, is that we have to present our material in bite-size pieces changing topics, methods of delivery, exercises, and energy levels about every 10 minutes or so.

This is not an exact science, but the longer you go on training people on a single topic with no break, the sooner you will see people pull out their mobile devices and begin to check messages.


This might sound too basic, but it is vital to keep all the information, examples, stories, exercises, tools, etc. relevant to the audience or participants.

If you don’t, it will not make sense.

A colleague of mine told me an example of what could happen when this strategy is not followed.

In a training conducted with the plants line supervisors, his trainer used an example about giving recognition in an office. He was referring to work that was done by someone after office hours, in an environment in which productivity and output were not measured as strangely as in the plant.

Immediately those supervisors lost interest in the class; they were turned off by the example and recognized that the person in front of them didn’t know who they were speaking to.
This is a reminder that it is vital to keep the audience engaged in order to conduct a good training.


Employees use their computers, tablets, and phones almost exclusively now. Providing a gigantic binder of materials or each slide that is presented during the class is a complete waste of time and paper.

No one will use it, except maybe for a door stop.

However, it is a good idea to have something that summarizes the learning and gives the participants a template to practice what they have heard. Using the information will be where the real learning takes place.


Since using the lessons is where the real learning takes place, building in a follow up mechanism to gauge learning, elicit questions, and provide additional coaching is vital.

There are hundreds of ways to do this; LinkedIn, Facebook, a company’s intranet, etc. Building a time and method for someone to follow up after a training is absolutely critical.

The other part of follow up is to involve the manager/leader of the participant. If the manager/leader is not encouraging, as well as demanding, then the usage of the learning will fall by the wayside.

In the research for my upcoming book, SIMPLE, these are a few of the most important aspects of creating great training that actually works. Developing training that lasts days and leaves the participants with a huge binder does not work anymore, but neither does an e-learning course that just throws information at the participant with no action afterward.

There is a balance that leverages the latest brain research and the best of adult learning theory to develop training that makes an impact on performance.

That is what we all want, isn’t it?

What have you found that doesn’t work about the way training is developed or delivered? What are some best practices that you have seen work well? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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The Not So High Impact Of Competencies

The Not So High Impact Of CompetenciesCompetencies are one the most studied and research tools in organization development and design. Yet, there is no reported link to increases in performance based on or due to them. It seems like many organizations put them in place to encourage a missing or desired behavior.

How many times do they follow up or actually measure if the competencies are making an impact?

Could it be that developing and implementing competencies is an example of Organizational Learned Helplessness?


Competence, or competency, is the ability of an individual to do a job properly.

A competency is a set of defined behaviors that provide a structured guide enabling the identification, evaluation and development of the behaviors in individual employees.

In its purest form, “These competencies are always displayed by superior performers.”

For years, possibly decades, organizations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating competencies and subsequent training to drive employees to meet or emulate those competencies with little or no real impact to the success or failure of the organization.

After a 13 month development project, one of the credit card companies in the world rolled out new leadership competencies to their service leaders. Twelve months later, there were a series of incidents caused by those service leaders that brought the company to its highest level of customer loss.

Was that all due to competencies?

Of course it wasn’t. However, after millions of dollars spent on their development and roll out, the competencies did little, if anything, to impact the actual performance of the targeted leaders.

There are literally hundreds of examples of competency programs failing to correct lasting cultural issues or performance problems.

Although designed with the best intentions, competency models have a tendency to have inherent flaws that stop them from being as effective as they could be.


Even with all the hard work that goes into defining each competency, in the end the rating, or a level of competence, for each “attribute” is based on the subjective interpretation of the evaluator regardless of the position.

Because a competency cannot be defined down to the “gnat’s eye lash detail,” it is inherently generic. It cannot cover every aspect or need of a potential role.

This leads to interpretation by the person using the competency.


Everyone wants to hire and work with top performers. Generally top performers possess the competencies described in most models.

But having these doesn’t mean the person will be successful in doing the actual work required with the resources available, working for the assigned leader and his/her unique style, and working in the company’s unique culture with all of the associated pressures, systems, procedures, and personalities.


Generally, there are too many competencies in most competency models.

Researchers found that there are generally 5 to 7 key “attributes” that can predict future success and a role. However, competency models often have double or triple those numbers of “attributes”.

Discussing and managing that number of “attributes” is nearly impossible.


Training associated to each competency, or level within a competency, is a compilation of training courses, webinars, books, and tools that are loosely related to the competency.

The training doesn’t necessarily impact the performance of the individual, and, unfortunately, as with most training there is little follow-up from the manager to determine whether or not the training actually had the intended impact.

What to do?

Although there is no amount of evidence that shows that competency models improve the performance of an organization, they do provide a valuable service. Competencies act to standardize the characteristics of what success might look like in a given role.

That is important when looking to fill a job or to evaluate performances.

On the other hand, there is an easier way to get to the same core group of important skills that is easier and much less expensive.

In a recent blog by Rob Benson:

  • Consider bagging the full-blown competency development process; do a simple brainstorming process instead. Brainstorm and list the skill sets that are needed for each job, not the individual competencies.

For most jobs, I guess that you would end up with a fairly short list. In our particular industry, this list might involve presentation skills, coaching skills, sales skills, instructional design skills, planning/organization skills, and one or two others.

  • Share that list with everyone whom it applies
  • Identify a superior performer for each skill set. Again, this is easier done than most realize. An anonymous, one-question survey, “who has great people skills in this department?” would do the trick.
  • In an ideal world, assign the superior performer to the employee seeking development.

Have them mutually agree upon objectives, benchmarks, and time frames. Then, provide that as a less-than-one-page-document to the manager of the employee seeking development.

  • Follow up with both. Expect the short report at the agreed-upon date noting key activities undertaken, lessons learned, challenges experienced, and next steps for continued development.

No, it is not as attractive as a 13 month project that captures the attributes or characteristics of the most successful person in a designated role, but it does identify critical skills and leverage the internal experts to mentor others.

This may not be practical for an organization wide approach. But, if there is a need to create competency models for standard roles, consider using an off the shelf tool that has defined competencies and roles already loaded in it. This will shorten the development time, meet over 85% of the need, and it is based on verified research.

After millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of hours spent on implementing competencies, has there been any real impact in organizational performance? What do you think? Are competencies necessary? If so, why? Are there causal links to organizational performance? Where have you seen competencies be successful? How about unsuccessful?

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Leadership Follies – Don’t Call It A Program

leadership folliesWhat’s the best way to make sure leadership development, employee engagement, or any other people initiative will fail?

Call it a program.

Programs are to employees with kryptonite is to Superman. They scream of formalized, over complicated initiatives that may or may not apply to the goals of the group, but must be followed to the letter. Things that are engrained in the culture aren’t called programs…they just happen.

Can you imagine (fill in the blank holiday) dinner at Mom’s being a program. No!



It is vital that employee engagement (or any people program) be linked DIRECTLY to a business or organizational goal Without that link, the idea of working on engagement will be akin to using the ab master that was bought at 2:30AM when watching an infomercial. It sounds like a great idea. Heck, it even has some science and data behind it. But no link to business goals = no long term engagement


Look for any opportunity to discuss engagement or maybe (gasp) to engage people. Engagement should be at the forefront of senior leadership communication, part of the objective of every management training and the driving force of every new initiative regarding employees. Engagement once or twice a year is similar to the new year’s resolution phenomenon.

“A New Year’s Resolution is something that goes in one year and comes out the other” – Oscar Wilde.

Don’t fall into that trap.


Employee Engagement the program is a long hard slog. It starts with a survey that takes too long to fill out. Then there are reports and data that are hard to decipher and take months (and months) to see. Finally, there is some grandiose action that is to be taken based on said results that is supposed to target the “area of opportunity”. In between there is a little training for managers and a lot of hand wringing to get people to take surveys and turn in action plans. Why can’t engagement be easy?

  • Keep the survey short
  • Don’t have more than 20 questions. Large unfocused surveys make people believe the organization doesn’t really know what its asking for. Also, questions that are targeted on what is actionable by managers makes engagement real for everyone
  • Get data back to managers and teams within a month or less from the time a survey is taken.
  • Long periods of time between surveys doesn’t bode well for action. It also makes people think there is something to hide. Turn data around quickly to start the conversation
  • Give managers constant training
  • Set up training on a regular basis that managers can access new insight or tools about engagement regularly. Also, provide a forum for them to share ideas with each other.
  • Make action plans living
  • Put action plans into a system that can be updated and is easily accessible. Don’t put a lot of restrictions on them either. Let teams do what they think is best.
  • Take action at the organizational level right away
  • Use aggregate data to put new programs or enhance programs right away and link it to engagement. Its important for folks to see results right away.

What else can be done to shift employee engagement from a program? How can we make sure that it doesn’t turn into “have to”?

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