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Ask a Trainer: How to Challenge the Status Quo


Tue May 11 2021

Ask a Trainer: How to Challenge the Status Quo

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Hi Tim,

I’m reaching out because I’ve run into a bit of an issue with one of my subject matter experts (SMEs). Each year, as part of our company’s performance review process, I work with this particular SME, who spends a significant amount of time designing a PowerPoint presentation, along with a written script, and demands that we convert the presentation into an “e-learning course” and host it within our learning management system for tracking purposes.


This exact scenario occurs each year like clockwork, and for the most part, our training department has gone along with it. However, nothing about what this person is creating is effective or could remotely be defined as e-learning. It’s a glorified PowerPoint presentation with a Next button.

But here’s where I’m sure how to navigate this program: This subject matter expert also happens to be the chief people officer of our company. This is someone who is my boss’s boss’s boss—someone who can seriously affect my future. And while I’d normally have no problem pushing back with any other SME on an issue like this, I’m struggling with how to respond, especially when you consider this individual’s position within the company.

Do you have any tips for how to respond to demanding subject matter experts, especially ones who are way higher up in the “food chain?”

This is a great question, and I’ve found myself in this situation many times throughout my career. How do you push back on a stakeholder or SME when there is a significant power imbalance? It’s a frustrating position to be in, especially when you’re trying to do the right thing (create better training), but you don’t want to push the wrong buttons with someone who can hold a grudge against you.

First, I have to say it’s telling that you seem to feel threatened (at least, that’s what I’m sensing from what you wrote) simply by the idea of challenging the status quo. Yes, it might be that you’re nervous about challenging someone at this level, but it could also be a sign about an unhealthy culture within this particular company. That’s just an observation I feel the need to point out.


Depending on which of those observations are true, I have a few thoughts that may or may not help.

Gently Propose a New Idea

My first tip is one that’ll help you determine whether or not this particular stakeholder of yours is open to new ideas. Yes, it can be scary to challenge the status quo, but there’s a way you can do it without going out in a blaze of glory.

The next time this SME asks you to convert their PowerPoint into e-learning, try asking if they ever considered a different way of delivering the content. The goal here isn’t to convince them of a new way of doing things (yet); it’s for you to carefully and safely evaluate their response.

If they seem curious or open to the idea, then take the opportunity to share your ideas while not criticizing the status quo. The key to success here is to “recruit” them into letting you help them make the training more effective. Highlight how a different solution will make their lives better and achieve the desired results.


Use the Chain of Command

If you attempt my first suggestion and don’t get the warm and fuzzy results you’re hoping for, my second tip is to bubble it up the chain of command. It’s sometimes better to let those above you deal with the tough conversation.

If you haven’t done so already, see how your boss or your boss’s boss feels about the “training” you’ve been creating. Do they support challenging the status quo for the betterment of this content? If so, ask them for help in convincing your subject matter expert in this change.

Pick and Choose Your Battles

My final tip should be used as a last resort. If you don’t feel comfortable challenging your SME directly and you don’t sense that your immediate leadership will support you in this, I suggest you need to pick and choose your battles.

Does this mean you need to completely give up and surrender? Not exactly. It simply means that you need to weigh the potential benefits of creating better training with the potential costs of upsetting someone when a significant power differential exists.

Instead of letting yourself get frustrated by the status quo, invest the minimal amount of physical and mental energy toward getting it done. That way, you can focus your efforts on those projects that will have a real impact.

It can be frustrating when we’re put into situations where we have to contribute our skills toward something that isn’t always going to result in the best outcomes. In those situations, always explore what you can do to make it better, but when that fails, don’t let it take you down in the process.

I’ll leave it there for now. I sure hope those tips help!


What other tips do you have for challenging the status quo with your stakeholders and subject matter experts? Share them by commenting below.

Do you have a learning question you’d like me to tackle? You can email them to [email protected]. Also, make sure to visit the Ask a Trainer Hub to check out all your questions and my answers.

We welcome your comments and engagement on these posts. All posts are reviewed to ensure appropriateness based on ATD’s requirements for postings in our online communities.

Please note: Content shared in this column is provided by the author and may not reflect the perspectives of ATD.

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