Sunday, November 11, 2007

Training the victim

'Training the victim' is one of the most common 'crimes' committed in the domain of Learning & Development. Often, this 'crime' follows a standard plot. There is a steady deterioration in the performance of a unit. Customers are unhappy. The unit head is shouting at the employees. There is a lot of firefighting happening. But all this does not seem to be working. The unit head feels that since the situation hasn't improved despite all his efforts, the employees must be incompetent to do the job/carry out his instructions. So he calls the Training manager and demands that the employees should be trained urgently. This could result in things like attitude training, skill based training and (when the unit head is a 'manager of managers' or higher) training the managers in the unit on people management (often under fancy names like 'engaging and energising teams'). The employees dutifully attend the training programs, though they feel that they are being blamed (or even 'punished') for no fault of theirs. However, even after the training programs have been rolled out, the performance indices continue their downward journey with renewed vigor.

I have seen that these kind of situations occur mainly because of wrong diagnosis/need identification. The real problem in these contexts might not be related to the capability level of the individual employees at all. Often, the problem is mainly at the structure, process, policy or leadership level. However, it is relatively difficult/inconvenient for the organization/unit head to address the issues/make changes at these levels. So there is a temptation to jump to the conclusion that it is an employee capability issue and to attempt a training solution. Since the real issue remains unaddressed (despite the 'training solution'), there can't much improvement in the situation. I am not saying that there won't be issues at the individual capability level. Of course this possibility should also be explored and if there is evidence for the existence of such a need, an appropriate learning solution could be attempted. My point is just that a proper diagnosis needs to be carried out before a solution is attempted (instead of jumping into the most convenient solution) and that when it comes to taking the responsibility for the deterioration in the performance of the unit in such situations, sometimes, the individual employees are 'more sinned against than sinned'.

Often, the way the HR function is structured in the organization increases the possibility of a wrong diagnosis. This happens mostly in those organizations where the Learning/Training function is aligned vertically, separate from the organization effectiveness function and the HR generalist functions. In these contexts, when a business leader directly contacts the Training specialist supporting the unit with a 'capability problem' (or even with the request for a particular training program), it is highly possible that the training specialist just carries out the request without spending much effort to check if the problem has been diagnosed correctly and if a training solution is appropriate. Sometimes this happens because the Training specialist does not have sufficient understanding of the entire business/people context in the unit or because the training specialist does not have the requisite diagnostic/consulting skills. In these cases, 'training need identification' becomes no more than 'order taking'. Also, if the training specialist is measured mainly on the number of training programs/number of person-days of training, then there might not be much incentive for the training specialist to 'refuse an order' or even to 'question an order'!

From the above discussion it can be inferred that a close partnership between the Training function and the Organization effectiveness/HR generalist functions could help in making the diagnosis/need identification more accurate by bringing in the requisite diagnosis/consulting skills, enhanced understanding of the context (from a whole system perspective) and greater credibility with the business leaders. This would also make the 'solution' more appropriate and enhance the effectiveness of implementation (by being able to manage the change better). Of course, defining the mandate for the training function in a more holistic manner and using the correct performance parameters to assess/reward training specialists would also be required.

It is interesting to note that from a psychological point of view, 'training the victim' can be considered to be a variation (or a mild version) of the broader theme of 'blaming the victim'. This involves holding the victims responsible (at least in part) for what happened to them when something bad happens. This enables others to absolve themselves of any blame/responsibility and also to reduce cognitive dissonance which would have resulted if they had to admit that the 'system' (structure/policy/process in this case) that they hold so dear/that they were responsible in creating/managing might be at fault. This in turn helps them to avoid the need for taking the more difficult/painful remedial steps that are required to address the real issue/cause of the problem. Sometimes this can also lead to tragic-comic situations. A few years ago, I heard about a situation where there was a proposal to conduct 'followership training' for the entire staff in a unit. Apparently, the unit head was a very poor leader and he was making the life of his staff miserable, leading to problems in employee engagement/ retention (which in turn was creating issues for the HR team). Since it was felt that the unit head won't be open to any sort of feedback and/or training, it was being suggested that the staff in the unit be trained in followership (as the leader won't be/can't be trained on leadership)! While I agree that 'managing the boss' is a valuable skill (and a 'trainable' skill to a large extent), I did feel that this attempt (training on 'followership') was (at best) a case of 'trying to solve the wrong problem' !

Related posts : See here ('the curious case of missing solution orientation') and here ('blame it on the managers') for related posts.


Na.Su.Krishnan said...

Makes us think about the missing understanding between HRM and the Training function. Also indicates the incoherence between ADDIE.

Nice post!

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you.

gitika said...

simply amazing blogs you write..was searching for some real Training and development writings, and found your blog!great work!

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Gitika!

natesh said...

Im getting an 'up grade' on my hr knowledge reading you posts prasad! Pls keep writing :) .. on this one I feel 'courage' and 'tact'(sometimes by definition they may not go along! ) on tge part if hr and maturity Nd openness on the part of the business leaders would determine whether real issue has a chance of getting addressed!

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thank you Natesh!