Difficult delegates

I was prompted to write the following in response to a posting on a training discussion forum which asked about handling difficult delegates on a training course.  As it happens, I’ve been commissioned to write a book on managing difficult people in the workplace, so this was very much in my mind at the time of posting. Although the book will be about  managing difficult people in the workplace, rather than in the training room, the same principles apply.

In essence, I believe that most of us do the best we can in whatever situation we find ourselves. We are the sum total of everything that brought us to that point. I cannot possibly know everything about everyone who comes to a training session, and I have to start with the belief that their fundamental reason for being there on that day (with some exceptions) is not to make my life miserable, because it’s not about me.

In a sense suggesting that delegates are difficult is to suggest that I have an ideal and that they are no conforming to it. Equally, I may not be confirming to theirs. And at some level, there is a supreme arrogance in expecting people to conform to my ideal. Therein lies bigotry, prejudice and exclusion. I like some people more than I like others. I find some fascinating and others boring. I know how I’m feeling and what has influenced my mood before I walk into the training room and I have no idea about anyone else’s day so far. I have been infuriated at times by what I have perceived as ridiculous challenges to what I have said and discovered later that this was simply someone’s way of learning and straightening out their own thinking. I have watched people looking bored and appearing not to be focus and realised that they are reflecting deeply on the conversations around them and retreating inside to examine their own thinking. I have seen people apparently highly engaged who have given a course a low evaluation.

It’s terribly difficult to be resilient in the face of behaviours that don’t suit us and match our hopes and expectations and I don’t claim mastery of it. I do know that if I stop taking things personally – the delegates didn’t come in for my entertainment or to please me – I then pay more attention to the subjective experience of the individuals in the room and, by working harder to understand their experience, can create a better experience for them.

To discuss any aspect of leadership and management development, soft skills training or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.

They made me come…learners, tourists and prisoners

To my mind, training course delegates fall into three broad categories: learners, tourists and prisoners.

Learners attend training because they have a real desire to learn something new.

Tourists come with the idea that there may be something of interested to be gleaned from the day, so they may as well stay and see what happens.

Prisoners arrive with the attitude “They made me come.”

Learners are a delight – they will join in activities and discussions, volunteer to present back, gee up the others (as long as the prisoners are not “mood Hoovers”, sucking all the positive energy out of the group.  Tourists can be fun, and it takes little to convert them to learners if you can engage them sufficiently early in the day in something they see as relevant.  Prisoners are harder work because, even if they find themselves enjoying the course and getting something from it, they remain reluctant to admit that they are benefiting from the day.

The trick, then, is ‘inoculation’ at the outset.  Instead of expending energy trying to win over the prisoners, which is often to the detriment of the learning experience for the genuine learners, tell the delegates about the three categories at the outset and ask them to name the category which best describes them.  The fact that you have acknowledged the possibility that some are prisoners amuses them and takes the wind out of their sails.  In a strange sort of way, because you have declared that it’s possible to be a prisoner on a course lets you into their world, and they find it difficult to display the huffing, puffing, “I don’t want to be here” behaviours that you might otherwise encounter.

So, if you have any suspicion that you have prisoners on the course, let them know and you (and they) will have a better, easier day.

Call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Meanwhile, happy new year!

David Cotton is an independent trainer,management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.

Stop doing training needs analyses!

When I first started working in training and development, it was the fashion to conduct a training needs analysis every time anyone identified an issue within a business. After all, there’s no point in hiring training professionals if they are not doing training work, is there?

The problem is that each time you do a training needs analysis, you presuppose that training is the solution. And sometimes you’ll be right. And sometimes you won’t.

Businesses suffer business problems. To be effective as an in-house trainer, you must have a real grasp of the business. Without that, you’re likely to produce isolated interventions which have little lasting value.

More useful – as well as developing an understanding of what the business is all about – is to do a business needs analysis, spending time analysing business requirements with no presupposition that training will be the solution.

In 1986, Nithin Nohria, William Joyce and Bruce Roberson began the Evergreen Project1, one of the biggest management studies ever undertaken. It set out to determine which management techniques are real indicators of long term success, measured in terms of “total return to shareholders”. Its conclusions were that the major tools and techniques, such as total quality management, Kaizen etc had no effect on the bottom line at all. They discovered startling consistency amongst the successful businesses. Each one of them excelled in four “Primary practices” and any two of four “secondary practices” (and it didn’t seem to matter which two).

Successful companies were great in Strategy, Execution, Culture and Structure.

They were also great in any two of Talent, Innovation, Mergers & Acquisitions, and Leadership (!)

The book neatly summarises the findings in each of the eight “practices”. Turn the summary into a series of questions, tweak it for your business and you have a wonderful framework for a business needs analysis. Use the questions to really discover what’s going on in your business, in a department or team and you’ll find:

  • you gain a greater understanding of the business
  • you can make more pertinent recommendations for business improvement
  • you increase your credibility as a business partner

So next time you’re tempted to do a training needs analysis, stop and think – how do I know that the outcome should be training? If there’s any doubt in your mind, consider instead a small scale business analysis. It won’t cost any more than a TNA and it will reveal vastly more.

To request a business needs analysis, discuss any aspect of leadership and management development or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.
1 Nohria, Joyce and Roberson: What really works: The 4+2 formula for sustained business success. Collins, 2003, ISBN-13: 9780060512871, ISBN 0060512784