The 6 Major Reasons Why “People Skills” Training Doesn’t Work – and 6 Action Steps to Fix It

Has this ever happened to you?

Your company decides you need to attend a workshop to get enhanced or improved “people skills” on topics like team building or conflict resolution.

Or, it might be training about getting along better with others or something like that.

And, you start to feel frustrated and, sometimes, even resentful.

“Here we go again”, you say.

“Another workshop. More stuff on interpersonal skills. Why bother? Nothing ever changes anyway”.

What’s going on here?

Why does so much training fail, often leading to apathy and resentment among employees?

More important, how can you, as a manager, increase the chances of the assigned training being more successful?

In the work we’ve done at Breakthrough Management, we’ve discovered 6 major causes that can often lead to this feeling of frustration and resentment about interpersonal (“people skills”) training. The causes are…

  1. Expectations. People don’t know what’s expected of them after they finish the training.
  2. Presentation and Facilitation. The Training doesn’t Incorporate Validated Adult Learning Theory as it applies to Learning.
  3. The Learning Doesn’t Stick. The Training doesn’t incorporate Validated Adult Learning Theory as it applies to Retention of the material learned.
  4. No Follow-up. There is rarely, if ever, any formal follow-up, either scheduled or management-supported.
  5. Workshop Participants Have Varying Levels of “Skill” Competence. The way the learning is delivered assumes that all the participants attending the workshop are at the same level of “competence” in the relevant skills being taught.
  6. Doesn’t Focus on Cause. The learning focuses only on a person’s behavior and doesn’t focus on the Cause of the Behavior.

This blog provides insight on Action Steps to minimize or avoid these 6 “causes” that consistently sabotage “people skills” training while optimizing the training itself.

Without this insight and these Action Steps, it’s easy to believe that training is a waste of money, which can prompt blogs like this popular read at the Harvard Business Review.

These days, many CEOs and managers recognize that it is critically important to get training right because they know that both training and new skills acquisition are the key to consistently growing a company and staying competitive.

With that backdrop, here are the 6 reasons why training fails and the 6 Action Steps to fix it.

  1. People Don’t Know What’s Expected of Them Once They Have Finished The Training.

In many training sessions, there is rarely any clear identification by management in advance of the session about the specific behaviors that are expected to change or improve for the people attending as a consequence of the training.

Action step to fix Reason #1:

Before sending anyone on any kind of skills building training, do this for each attendee…

  • Identify the specific skills/behaviors you expect them to change or improve
  • Negotiate this with each attendee – including the consequences of the skill/behavior not improving
  • Establish whether or not the attendee is motivated to learn and grow. If they aren’t, they forfeit the opportunity to attend the training session
  1. The Training Doesn’t Incorporate Validated Adult Learning Theory as it applies to Learning.

The learning material and curricula are not presented and formatted in a way that encourages and supports learning.

Adults aren’t kids.

So they learn differently from kids and apply learning differently.

These days, as a result of a lot of research on the subject, we now know a great deal about how adults learn and how to teach them.

Action step to fix Reason #2:  

It may seem obvious but many training programs don’t follow a proven sequence that makes learning stick better. To increase the chances of success, ensure that the facilitator incorporates a process called Successive Approximation.

Successive Approximation says that for better results, the facilitator needs to follow this process which starts with something that is “easy to know and understand” and also “easy to do”.

That’s because Validated Adult Learning Theory says that for learning to have a better chance of “sticking”, the material presented needs to follow the specific 4-step sequence below.

4 steps.001In other words, START the training with material that is:

  1. EASY to Know and Understand and EASY to Do – then follow with material that is
  2. HARD to Know and Understand and EASY to Do  – leading to material that is
  3. EASY to Know and Understand and HARD to Do – ending with material that is
  4. HARD to Know and Understand and HARD to Do.

For managers and employees, this 4-step format for the material being presented helps ensure that the learning is absorbed more quickly, is consequently easier to remember, and therefore easier to apply by the learner, if desired.

  1. The Training Doesn’t Incorporate Validated Adult Learning Theory as it applies to Retention of the material learned.

The learning material and curricula are not presented and formatted in a way that encourages and supports retention of the learned material.

In other words, the learning doesn’t stick.

To make learning stick, it’s important to understand the “half-life” of learning and then ensure effective follow-up

The term “half-life” comes from science. It refers to the amount of time it takes for a quantity to reduce to half its initial value.

In other words, how long until you’ve got only half of what you’ve started with?

With radioactive materials, the half-life can be 10,000 years. In other words, it takes 10,000 years to lose half its radioactivity.

With learning, the half-life can be as little as 2 ½ days.

In other words, half of what was learned is no longer retained a couple of days later.

Companies that don’t pay attention to this proven principle of the learning process are often disappointed by the results of their training and don’t know why.

Here’s the reason.

Research shows that any learning material, presented to any group of people, is only fractionally remembered by the individuals receiving it.

The numbers are surprising.

Validated Adult Learning Theory shows that after someone is exposed to any new material but before they apply it, they have a retention and recall rate of only between 12% and 15% of the material covered.

In other words, they DON’T remember more than 85% of it.

Among dedicated learners (effective students, effective educators, etc.), the rate of recall goes up to between 21% and 23%.

In other words, even the dedicated learners forget almost 80% unless it’s immediately reinforced.

There are many reasons why these percentages are so low but they are not the focus of this blog.

Here’s the way the math works to show how an average learner (most of us) can forget almost everything learned at “training” within less than a week.

The Half-Life of Learning tells us that if a person is exposed to a speech or presentation that lasts about 1½  hours and they walk out retaining around 12% of the material presented and if the material is not immediately reinforced and applied within the next 24 hours…

  •      2½ days later the retention rate is halved down to 6%.
  •      2½ days later it is halved again down to 3%.
  •      2½ days later the person basically retains what they originally went into the presentation with.

That’s just over a week later and it’s gone.

If the same person attends a two to three day workshop where they interact, participate and take notes, the percentage of material retained might go up slightly to, let’s say, 14%. The half-life break-out then looks like this…

  •      21 days later the retention rate is halved down to 7%.
  •      21 days later it is halved again down to 3½%.
  •      21 days later they are left with what they went into the workshop with.

And this is why so many managers think that training is a waste of time and money – because the skills/behavior of the attendees doesn’t change.

Here’s the Action Step to Fix Reason #3:

  • To make learning stick, it’s important to understand and remember the “half-life” of learning and then ensure effective follow-up.
  • And, make sure sufficient time is dedicated to training (3 days is better than a half day)

Which leads to the next point about why so much money and time is “wasted” in training. It’s because of little or no follow-up.

  1. There Is Rarely, if Ever, any Scheduled and Management Supported Follow-up.

Too often, there is no structured follow-up that supports the expected application of the learned and retained material – which was the point of going to the workshop in the first place!

Action step to fix Reason #4:

To ensure that the learning sticks…

  •  When scheduling the original training, at the same time ensure that all the relevant follow-up sessions are scheduled, with attendance mandatory for all attendees of the initial training
  •  The managers requesting the training must clearly identify and commit to how their own behaviors will have to change to support each attendee as well as the training – ensuring that it sticks
  •  Based on the “half-life” of learning in Reason # 3 above, start the follow-up either within 2 ½ days after a session of less than one day or within 21 days for a 2-3 day session.

5.  The Way The Learning Is Delivered Assumes That All The Participants Attending The Workshop Are At The Same Level Of “Competence” In The Relevant Skills Being Taught.

Even though different people can be at different levels of maturity in exactly the same skill, most facilitators of skill building workshops don’t specifically cater to what can be a subtle or large “competence” gap among attendees.

Action step to fix Reason #5:  

To ensure maximum learning for each of the participants…

  • Work with the facilitator before the workshop to establish the “skill gap” that has to be addressed by the facilitator for each individual attendee
  • Discuss with the facilitator what the manager has to do for each person to support the training after the workshop, including Action Steps identified in Reason #4 above (management scheduled follow-up).
  1. The Learning Focuses only on a Person’s Behavior and Doesn’t Focus on the Cause of the Behavior.

Most “skills training” currently focuses on an individual’s behavior.

It is called Behavior Based Learning, driven by the expectation that once you show someone the behavior you want them to change, they know how to do it.

This type of learning assumes that the individual knows and understands the “cause” of why they are behaving in a particular way.

Unfortunately, most people don’t.

Causal Based Learning avoids this trap by focusing primarily on the root cause of a behavior whether it is innate or learned and whether it is consciously or unconsciously triggered.

Action Step to fix Reason #6: Cause is so important that it is covered in greater detail here (click on this link for Part 2 of how to Stop Wasting your Money on Training, including Action Step #6).

If you understand the 6 causes in this blog and apply the 6 action steps to fix the potential problems, your training could start giving you a bigger bang for your buck very quickly.