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Training Design Meeting Project Planning Concept
Insights

The Least Interesting Person in the Room

Thursday, September 26, 2019
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Your L&D program needs a new direction, so you’ve hired a consultant to help tear down the obstacles that have been holding you back. Your consultant is knowledgeable, strategic, and has a proven record of remaking training departments into world-class learning teams. Their podcasts and vlogs are TED-level inspirational. They’ve hashed out your organization’s L&D strategic plan, timelines, and measurement with your leadership team.

Now it’s time to introduce your star to your employees for the next step in the change-management process. What could go wrong?

Maybe nothing at all—your employees may be incredibly forward-thinking and change-positive. However, you’re likely to have some skeptics, especially among those who have seen other shiny objects come and go. A few might even be hostile to change. These shades of change acceptance exist in every organization, and your consultant will have strategies to address them.

But before they do, they need to build a relationship with your employees: one founded in respect, curiosity, and earned trust. If they’re not mixing well, one or more of these dynamics may be to blame.

Your Consultant Knows Everything

It’s one thing for a consultant to do their research and gain familiarity with your company, teams, and job roles and responsibilities. It’s quite another to approach your employees as if they’ve seen and heard it all before.

Your consultant’s job is to ask the questions that motivate employees to share ideas about their work, obstacles, and successes. After asking, they need to listen—no matter how much Sam the project manager sounds like every project manager they’ve ever met. A great consultant’s job is to dig for the insights that make Sam’s perspective unique. If the consultant can’t find a way to access those, that’s their issue, not Sam’s.

The best consultants are masters of empathy: They’re extremely observant of how others present themselves, and they tailor their approach accordingly. They’ll tone down their volume for an introverted ISD and invite an energetic salesperson for a walk-and-talk—and bring their authentic self to both interactions. The constant is their genuine interest in each person.

Your Consultant’s Gotten Too Comfortable

Your superstar may be on familiar terms with your leadership team, but that doesn’t mean they go way back with your staff. They shouldn’t be dispensing with boundaries—or civility—as they interact with your people.

Your consultant’s reputation is founded upon disruption, so they’ll be tearing down some red tape. Conventions such as lengthy meetings and convoluted approval processes are ripe for trimming—often to great effect. But make sure that the new, no-BS regime doesn’t trample on your employees’ dignity. A direct approach is refreshing; however, not everyone is comfortable with salty language, razzing, or being called out in front of a group. What one person laughs off may feel like bullying to another—and your consultant’s position of power makes it hard to speak up.

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The bottom line? Don’t let your consultant take liberties with your people: The relationship needs to be earned before it’s disrupted.

Your Consultant Doesn’t Accept Feedback

Together, you and your consultant have established a clear line of sight between your business’s current state and its long-term goals. They’ve identified some obstacles: old ways of doing things, unnecessary red tape, and . . . your own employees?

Every organization has a few chronic naysayers, but you should challenge your consultant if they’re adamant that your people are the problem. Excepting active saboteurs or incompetents, employees generally want the best for the organization; they can be brought around to a new vision, even if they’re initially skeptical.

Great consultants—and great leaders—receive feedback graciously. People tend to say little when they don’t feel safe, so sharing doubts and reservations is an indicator of a strong relationship. And every individual who speaks up represents at least a few others.

Feedback also helps you strengthen your strategic plan. No decision can make everyone happy, but you can make everyone feel heard by addressing their concerns and sharing why you’ve chosen to proceed as you have. An argument that has already accounted for—and refuted—its counterarguments is far stronger than one that’s been created in a vacuum.

Your Consultant Is the Star of Every Show

Your consultant opens brainstorming and ideation sessions with a statement that your team is in a “safe space,” where there are “no bad ideas” and they can be as creative as they like. So why are your employees so quiet?
First of all, they aren’t used to thinking of themselves as creative. When they’re ordered to be, the pressure makes them lock up. They probably have some unique, innovative approaches or perspectives, but it takes time for them to get into exploration mode—and even more time to see their ideas as valid.

When working with a reticent group, it’s tempting for a leader to share their own ideas first—both as a model and a means to alleviate the pressure of going first. But, due to your consultant’s star power, it’s also intimidating. Your employees will inevitably compare their modest ideas to your consultant’s flashy, developed ones, and sit the conversation out.

What your consultant needs to do is draw them out—not show off. Forget the TED Talk persona: this is the time for them to be the least interesting person in the room.

To elicit creativity, your consultant should begin with a low-stakes brainstorming task, then have your employees expand their ideas in pairs or small groups. The skill lies in asking the open-ended questions that force your people to think bigger and more strategically.

Your employees should be the sages on the stage, not passive spectators. They’re the ones who will execute the big, bold ideas that transform your business—and remain with you when your superstar moves on.

About the Author

Tiffany Vojnovski has worked since 2006 as an educator, instructional developer, and coach. In her role as Performance Consultant at GP Strategies, she focuses on learner empathy and the design-thinking process to inform her explorations of learners’ work environments and training needs. Currently a PhD candidate in the Learning Design and Technology department at Wayne State University, Tiffany's interests include customer and user experience; creating learning solutions to address cultural gaps between new hires and managers, and new hires and customers; adult literacy; and educational justice.

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