Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Training the Pig to Sing

An old saying has guided me through the years—“Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.” A recent article in the Wall Street Journal in the Cubicle Corner section was written by a good friend of mine, Jared Sandberg. In “Bad At Complying? You Might Just Be a Very Bad Listener,” Jared describes a two-day course in the power of listening that he attended. These soft-skill courses—I call them behavioral interventions—have plagued my career for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been trained beyond my intelligence. One of the advantages of my retirement is being removed from those mind-bending courses.

In the above article, Jared describes a situation where the boss is trying to fix someone with training. “There’s fluorescent lighting, stain-resistant carpet, and motivational posters with puppies, elephants, or monkeys.” Is it coming back to you now? Are you having the same heart palpitations I had when I recalled a similar setting?

These behavior-altering courses cover leadership, team building, conflict resolution, how to deal with incorrigible employees, and charting your management style, to name just a few of the sessions designed to improve your thinking.

I don’t want to seem cynical, but, by and large, people’s behavior cannot be altered. And, just for the record, I’m an annoyed pig.

Victims of these courses quickly learn what’s unacceptable behavior and then camouflage their own behavior from then on. Deep-down, nothing has changed. It’s the old “getting along to get along.” Corporate survival dictates that we wholeheartedly absorb all these recommendations, but how many of us have sleep-walked ourselves through these sessions? Let’s see a show of hands. My hand is up.

I’m not talking about training that provides instruction on new products, a new computer system, diversity training, or a whole myriad of areas that one needs to keep pace with technology. I know people who are involved in such training, and I value their contribution to this line of work. Nonetheless, let me provide some examples of fluff training that I think should be relegated to the “cemetery of bad ideas.”

In a previous career I was a trainer and provided some of this fluff. Nothing seems to account for some of the foolishness I dispensed in the name of training.

One of the ridiculous techniques I taught in a course on quality improvement was to have the attendees take off their shoes and then place them on the opposite feet. I’d ask, “Now how do you feel?” They’d say, “It’s awkward,” “It hurts,” “Let’s go back to the old way.” Then I would counter with, “Change is always difficult, and we just want to return to what was more comfortable.” It’s a wonder someone didn’t throw a shoe at me.

A friend of mine who’s nearing retirement recently attended an internal course entitled “Left Brain, Right Brain.” Many people in his department upon seeing the curriculum tried to opt out, but the corporate all–knowing hierarchy indicated otherwise. My friend said that it was a complete waste of time and at the end of the day he didn’t know if he was left-brained logical and objective or right-brained random and intuitive. He just knew that he was brain dead.

How about the team-building exercise where people are asked to fall backwards into the hands of their cohorts to illustrate trust? Here’s one I saw at a major automaker: People were passed through a labyrinth of rope squares by their associates. This was also done to engender trust but other than a couple of rope burns and some unintentional groping it seemed like another candidate for the cemetery of convoluted ideas.

Many years ago, a financial institution I worked for introduced “Grid Training” for management. For a torturous week we were barricaded in a hotel where we had to determine if we were 9-1s, 9-9s, 1-9s or some other number that would indicate our management style. The sessions were brutal and lasted until well after midnight; many people left in disgust. Senior management never indicated how this would improve the company, and it never did. We were all supposed to emerge equally focused on work and the feelings of others. The senior management team comprised the usual number of ogres, and improvement never happened.

In researching this article, I solicited examples of training sessions that left people discombobulated or flummoxed, but not wiser. One corporate elixir that came back repeatedly was training for 360-degree reviews. Most felt that feedback from superiors, peers, and underlings had turned into “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” As one respondent commented, “If people had been honest with their reviews, it would have been the end of several amicable working relationships”.

Before you conclude that I’ve fallen out of my hammock and hit my head, I’ll admit there are several training sessions that still resonate positively with me, some of a behavioral nature. The three days of training in the Baldrige process is a valuable session that explores in detail the inner workings of companies, starting with leadership and working your way through workforce resources, strategic planning, and concluding with organizational performance results. If you’re accepted as a Baldrige examiner, it’s free.

A course proven to be valuable in interacting with people, particularly for conflict resolution, is “DISC Training,” which provides guidance in the communication style and preferences of others and how to best “flex” to meet the communication needs of those important to you. It’s understanding people as they are and how to work effectively with them.

Through their Leadership Center The Ritz-Carlton offers a variety of courses that provide insights into its culture and philosophy of hiring people with positive attitudes who don’t require any fixing. The center is a resource for organizations interested in benchmarking many of the business practices that led to The Ritz-Carlton becoming a two-time recipient of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. These are courses that are appropriate for any company interested in raising their customer service to a higher level. The courses also review the elements of developing a strong management team.

Another stellar training organization is the Disney Institute. Removing barriers that inhibit performance excellence is an integral part of the module.

A behavioral training course that still influences me is “The Executive Technique.” This is a two-day course on developing communication skills, such as organizing and delivering a real-life communication from your listener’s perspective, creating visual aids, how to maintain control of difficult question-and-objection situations, and even a session on proper business dress and etiquette.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention a resource in my backyard, namely Eastern Michigan University which offers a potpourri of multiple-day courses in quality and continuous improvement in their Center for Quality.

Anther friend of mine, Tom Hinton, who is with CRI Global (out of California) summed up the behavioral-training mystery this way:

“Years ago, when we trained clients in the areas of leadership, customer service, and business excellence, they would thank us, pay us, and then go back to business as usual. Today, our clients are engaged in the training process. Today, clients want to know what results they can reasonably expect from their training investment. Leaders also want to know what they need to do on Monday morning to keep the training lessons fresh in the minds of the employees. I think the reason for the change among leaders is two-fold. First, leaders are now more accountable than every before for organizational success. Second, I think most leaders generally want to move their organizations from good to great by creating a culture of excellence.”

Well said!

Tom Peters once said, “You should not train anyone in a topic that he or she cannot implement within the workplace within 72 hours.”

Finally, this comment from a former colleague: “Most management behavioral-training classes are worthless in that they are either inane or the brass does nothing to reinforce the taught behavior.”

There are people like me, who have been trained beyond their intelligence, and there are others like the pigs, who are annoyed even when asked to be in a training session. Rather than spend money and time trying to make attitudinal changes, perhaps the answer is to jettison these recalcitrant, irascible employees from the company. A recent incident chronicled by USA Today brings this into focus and clearly illustrates my point:

“Owning up to its bad management, the City Council in Ashland, Oregon, has decided to throw itself on the civic version of a therapist’s couch. The six-member council, plagued by bickering, sniping, and profanity at its public meetings, agreed to spend $37,000 of taxpayer money for professional help to learn how to get along.”

I can imagine the chaos that will ensue when members are passed though a labyrinth of ropes or asked to fall backwards into the trusting arms of their colleagues. After reading about this organizational meltdown, I’ll take my chances training pigs.

In the meantime, I’ve made the transition into retirement not knowing or caring if I’m left-brain or right-brain, or if I’m a 9-1 or a 9-9. The best part? No more role-playing! Now, if I could just figure out a way to correct the aberration in my feet from wearing my shoes on the opposite foot during the training session...

About the Author:
William J. Kalmar has extensive business experience, including service with a Fortune 500 bank and the Michigan Quality Council, of which he served as director. He has been a member of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Board of Overseers and a Baldrige examiner. He’s also been named quality professional of the year by the Detroit Chapter of ASQP. Now semiretired, he’s a freelance writer for the Detroit News; writes a monthly column for Mature Advisor newspaper; is a mystery shopper for several companies; is a frequent presenter and lecturer; does radio voice-overs; and competes in duathlons. He can be reached at Billmarykalmar@aol.com

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