We were dumbfounded. What a terrible waste of time and money! A hundred thousand dollars down the drain because the manager was not on board. And then we realized that while this was a single, dramatic example, the same kind of thing happens all the time.
Employees attend training and come back enthused about using what they learned, only to have their managers throw cold water on it. It may be overt (“that may be what they taught you, but that is not how we do it in my department”), or it may be through simple neglect. Regardless, the total cost of the learning scrap generated runs into the millions of dollars, not just hundreds of thousands.
Why does this happen and what can we, as learning professionals, do to prevent it?
The vital role that managers play in making sure training pays off has long been recognized. Rob Brinkerhoff, in Telling Training’s Story (2006), put it succinctly: “When managers support training and learners, it works. When they do not, it does not.”
So why don’t managers do more to support learning and learners? We think there are three root causes:
- insufficient buy-in to the goals and process
- ignorance of the impact (positive and negative) that they have on training’s return on investment
- uncertainty about what they can do to be sure the company gets its money’s worth.
So what can we do to avoid having managers intentionally or unintentionally undermine the benefits of training? We need to take pre-emptive action to be sure that all the time and effort invested in learning and development (L&D) opportunities pay a return by:
- ensuring managerial buy-in
- making sure that managers understand their impact on training outcomes
- providing managers with short, simple, effective things they can do to maximize the value.
Ensure Buy-In. If managers don’t understand the business value and rationale for the training, they won’t actively support it. Ensure buy-in by including managers in the targeting and design of the training—not just senior managers, but also those who supervise the attendees; they are critical for implementation. Also, be sure that when you describe L&D initiatives, you always stress the business outcomes, not just the learning objectives.
Explain the Impact. Most managers have no idea how large an impact their action—or inaction—has on whether their department benefits from training. A study at American Express concluded that managers “can make or break the success of any training initiative.” It isn’t enough for managers to just not be negative; they need to be visibly and actively supportive. When managers say nothing one way or another about training, employees interpret that to mean that it is not important. Educate managers about the impact they have. For instance, when Pfizer shared the results of a study on the impact of managers with their line leaders, coaching went up.
Provide Suggestions. One reason managers don’t do more coaching post-training is that they are not exactly sure what they are supposed to so. We have found that if you provide managers with specific, short, and effective things they can do to maximize training, many of them will, and to good effect.
The best training in the world will have limited impact unless its use is actively supported by participants’ managers back on the job. A manager can undo months of effort in a single conversation, as in the story we started with. Conversely, managers can amplify, extend, and multiply the beneficial effects of training. In other words, the success of L&D depends to a great extent on participants’ managers, and smart organizations have learned how to encourage and support managers.
Want to Learn More?
This article is based on the third edition of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development Into Business Results, which will be available from ATD Press in April 2015. Every participant in the preconference Learning Transfer Certificate program will receive a copy. Sign up now and learn how to make your training and development efforts even more effective.