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POSITIVE SAFETY CULTURES: Don't train employees in a silo

October 1, 2005
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Do you ever wonder how worthwhile your organization’s training, including safety training, really is, and what can be done to make it better? Here are eight keys to more efficient and productive training:

1) Don’t get pre-occupied with seating arrangements and AV equipment.

Let me explain. There are plenty of sensible and helpful guidelines about training program design and delivery — minimize lecture, use active-learning techniques such as case-study discussion and role play, build in buddy-audited homework assignments — and about the critical competencies of the instructor.

Skilled instructors and excellent training program content and process are “necessary” conditions for training effectiveness, but they are not in and of themselves “sufficient.” My experience developing and conducting management- and leadership-training programs tells me that by focusing so much on the seminar per se, we take a narrow, “silo” approach to the training process. A training session never happens in a vacuum, and learning is affected by a host of factors. Read on.

2) Training modules or programs must be consistent and compatible with each other.

Many organizations buy off-the-shelf programs that various training vendors have developed. Each might be fine as a stand-alone product, but consider your entire “line” of training programs or sessions. Is your “line” consistent in thematic content, language, concepts, and models? Is a given session compatible with, or in any obvious way related to, previous seminars that the company has bought or future ones it will buy? Or are you offering employees a “training smorgasbord” of different products?

Decide on a curriculum for training and development, so training sessions build upon each other. And stay with a common set of concepts and language.

3) Training always takes place in the broader organizational context and culture.

Will participants arrive ready to actively learn? Will the immediate manager of a participant be able and willing to support and strengthen the new behaviors that are learned? Will he/she ignore them, or even punish them instead? How will the rest of the organization react when Joe the safety pro comes back fresh from a behavior-based safety seminar, and now in his old environment starts talking “antecedents-behaviors-consequences” and “peer coaching”?

4) Get inter-personal.

After the Three Mile Island nuclear near-catastrophe in 1979, I had the opportunity to help develop and conduct team training for nuclear control room operators — an industry standard still very current today. But prior to that time, training for control room crews was essentially all technical and geared to the individual. Largely absent was any sense of the importance of crew coordination, team dynamics, and collaborative group problem-solving.

The operators I worked with, as well as their management, embraced the concept of the control room crew working as a team. But the nuclear regulatory culture had not yet caught on to this new thinking. And so we had a clear example of how culture can influence training outcomes. You see, instead of engaging in group give-and-take to solve or avoid problems, unit supervisors felt they had to revert to “command and control mode” when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors were present. Their strong sense was that by asking for team input instead of giving orders, they would not “look like a leader” in the presence of the regulatory culture. Thankfully, my friends in the industry assure me this is no longer the case.

5) Leadership sets the tone.

To be truly effective, training must start at the top. Where possible, it’s good to use the “cascading” approach to training, with trained managers actually involved themselves in the subsequent training of their people.

Where that’s not feasible, it’s important for management to at least go through the training, or at the very least get a so-called “reinforcement” session. Managers need to be exposed in some detail to the concepts and language of the training, so they can support it accurately in word and deed. Top management, of course, has a major impact on the operating culture of the organization — and whether that culture will support, ignore, or penalize in some way the skills being taught.

6) Prepare your folks before “sending them out for training.”

Participants should be briefed about content, process, and any other relevant details of the training. They should be encouraged to set specific learning goals for themselves. And they should bring home a specific action plan for putting the new learning into effect. This sort of pre-training briefing encourages trainees to take an active learning approach to a training session. Then they are more likely to be in a class looking for answers to important questions, not just filling a chair (and attacking the lunch buffet)!

7) Actively support learning when employees get back home.

Shortly after a training session, a more-or-less structured de-brief should take place with the immediate manager. Participants should share with their boss just what they got out of the session, the details of their personal action plans, and their immediate next steps to put them into action.

Together, manager and participant should identify the manager’s support role going forward. Longer term, the manager should ideally continue to coach/mentor, and if necessary recommend additional training for further development of critical skills. Finally, it’s always, always important that leaders themselves model the behaviors taught in the session. How often I have heard the comment from training session participants, “My boss is the one who needs this!”

8) Assess training impact directly on targeted behaviors and organizational performance.

Such hard, outcomes-based evaluation admittedly takes way more effort than the universal “smile sheet” collected at the end of a training session. But folks in the training business know that soft measures of participants’ reactions to training often say more about the entertainment value of the instructors and the quality or quantity of that lunch buffet than about the actual effectiveness of the training. Rigorous outcomes-based training assessment can be done, and the potential value is enormous.

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