Training Tip 116: The 15 Greatest Mistakes in Training

By Edwin Pauzer posted 09-07-2018 12:11


With almost 30 years of experience in training, I have come across mistakes of all kinds, shapes, sizes and costs. I’ve managed to narrow them down to 15, in which I can find an experience of mine or someone else’s for each one.

Mistake No. 1: Non-Training Personnel making Training Decisions

Non-training personnel often see training as penicillin, a universal antidote to crises or simply poor performance. We have seen such knee-jerk reactions after the death of Eric Garner, the Staten Islander who was taken down in a chokehold by NYPD. His last words were, “I can’t breathe.” The coroner ruled his demise as death by asphyxiation. In a Starbucks in Philadelphia, PA two minorities where removed by police because the manager wanted them removed. They were waiting for someone and hadn’t ordered yet. The NYPD and Starbucks reacted by spending millions of dollars on “training.” NYPD conducted a three-hour lecture for all their officers, which was poorly received. Chokeholds had been banned by the Department since 1993 and it was in their police officers' manual. Starbucks made their employees watch a video they called “sensitivity training.”

One of the most common stories of managers making bad training decisions is asking the training specialist to create training that will make her employees be more professional, or create a program to make his employees team players. The training professional will immediately recognize that they are asking for attributes, not skills, and that they might not discern the difference. The trainer will also recognize that any performance deficiency may be for other reasons and that training might not be the solution to correcting it.

Many people believe they know training because they have been to school, and they also believe that education is the same as training, so they know training. As one lawyer once told me, “I’m a lawyer, Ed, so you know I know training.” Not only did these words haunt me but so did the profound comment by Satchel Paige, a great baseball pitcher of yesteryear when he quipped, “It’s not what you don’t know that will hurt you; it’s what you think you know that just ain’t so."

Mistake No. 2: Lack of Management Involvement

Lack of management support is the leading cause of training failure and poor on-the-job performance. Too often once a manager has made a decision about training, she moves on to the next issue, as if the training one was taken care of. There is also a special kind of sabotage to the training efforts that many managers are unwittingly a part of. Some will be actively opposed to the skills learned in training, and refuse to allow them to be used. There are some who discourage the learners from practicing what they learned, while others will be indifferent to the training, and don’t know or care if his employees are practicing what they were taught. Unfortunately, there are too few managers who encourage new learned practices, and even fewer still, of managers who insist what they learned be demonstrated on the job.

In one study where training was reinforced by senior management, they found $33.00 in return for every $1.00 spent on training. In the same study where management was not involved in training, there was a negative return on investment.

Mistake No. 3: Training is a Result

Many years ago, I remember a correction captain saying that he had no idea how to write test questions. He was admonished with three simple words, “you’ve been trained.” While it was true, the captain had been trained in a 40-hour instructor course years earlier that spent no more than 30 minutes on how to write test questions. He had never practiced it since.

It is not uncommon for people to believe that once you have been trained in a topic, it is in your head forever. After all, in school, once you pass a class or a grade, you move on to the next one. Seeing training as a result rather than a continual process is one of the greatest mistakes of all and contradicts the old adage, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Mistake No. 4: The Brain is a Receptacle

A kissing cousin of Mistake No. 3, many people see the brain as a beer stein. Just open the lid (skull) and pour the instructional information into it to be recalled at a later date. The difference here is that any old way of imparting the information will do. Remember the three-hour lecture at NYPD on not using chokeholds, or the video on sensitivity used by Starbucks.

It also means that you can jam pack as much information as possible into the brain in the same way you can stuff a suitcase. Unfortunately, too much spills out if the brain is on overload. The way that I demonstrate this is by filling a Dixie Cup from a pitcher of water and let it overflow, while talking. Of course my class starts to scream that I’m spilling it, and that is when I tell them that the same thing happens to the brain with too much information. While you might not like drama, it emphatically makes the point.

Mistake No. 5: No Stakeholders, Mentors or Coaches

In the early morning hours of February 4, 1999, a black man name Amadou Diallo was at his apartment door in a dimly lit hallway where he was being watched by four NYPD officers from their elite Street Crimes Unit (SCU). When he pulled out his wallet, one of the cops believed it was a weapon and yelled “gun!” The officers shot 41 times, 19 of which hit the young immigrant killing him.

The SCU worked in small teams always with at least one officer who was so experienced as to be the team leader or coach. NYPD Commissioner Howard Safir, was so impressed with the results of the SCU, he wanted to triple the size of the 138-man unit and did so against the objections of NYPD’s training unit. The expansion meant that many teams would not have the advantage of a coach. Three hours of video was added to the training. None of the four-man team that early morning had such a team member.

New York City paid the Diallo family $3,000,000, one of the largest settlements in the city’s history for a single person with no dependents in a wrongful death suit. The Street Crimes Unit was disbanded in 2002.

Training fails if it is seen as a result rather than a process. That process must take into account stakeholders, mentors and coaches and it must start before the training and continue after the training. Studies by Pfizer, American Express and Xerox reported a dismal 13% success rate in people using what they were taught after six months. None of the failures were mentored or coached after their training.

Mistake No. 6: Making Training the First Solution

Management loves training as a first solution. Why? Because they see training as action, and the public sees action has been taken by instituting a training program, especially after a crisis, without realizing that it is like painting over rust. Those who do realize might go along with it hoping they will move on by the time anyone realizes the training did not solve the problem. The public saw that NYPD and Starbucks took action to their respective crises. Neither lecture nor video was the solution, nor could either be labeled training, but sometimes it is more important to give the appearance that training has taken place rather than ensuring actual learning occurred.

Training should be to an organization like surgery is to medicine—a last resort. Training as a first solution means no one has really identified the problem or examined why something did or did not happen. Training as a first solution will always be the wrong solution.

Mistake No. 7: Time Determines the Training

Anyone with any training experience can recall a time being asked to create a training program into a specific time frame. For the trainer, this is akin to being asked to get dressed starting with the outer garments and shoes followed by undergarments and socks. One recourse is to write the training program so the learners can perform the desired skill. If it goes under the time frame, tell them you have saved them time. If it goes over, ask the managers what part they would like removed and write a confirmation email addressing your concerns if it stays as is or once its been done.

Mistake No. 8: No Analysis

Albert Einstein said, “If I have only one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes solving it.”

Imagine going to your doctor complaining of a headache. She doesn’t ask you any questions, doesn’t even examine you. Instead she schedules you for brain surgery. You would probably want a second opinion. Analysis, or diagnosis if you will, is always the first step in training by asking why performance is below expectations, and what alternatives to training have been considered. Very often training will not be the treatment or the solution, which is one reason why 85% to 90% of the billions of dollars spent each year on training is wasted. Maybe that’s why Dr, Michael Beer of the Harvard Business School and his associates called it the ‘Great Training Robbery.”

Mistake No. 9: Training is an Expense

Many managers may want training, but they don’t want to spend a lot for it, and they don’t want their people to spend a lot of time taking it. Some actually believe training their people is a waste of time, and will rationalize that they will change jobs after they have been trained. The best rebuttal to that is the employees will find a job elsewhere to get the training and development they want. How much and how long will it take to replace them? Today’s millennials feel little organizational loyalty like generations before them did.

It must also be made clear that the larger the class size and the shorter the class time will reflect adversely on the level of competence learned.

Mistake No. 10: Skill Equals Performance

This is the belief that once the employees are trained, they are automatically going to apply what they learned on the job. Nothing could be further from the truth. The finger pointing usually starts when the employees do not perform as trained. The responsibility lies with training AND the managers in the field. Training is responsible for skill development and self-efficacy in the learners. The managers’ responsibilities are to ensure that the learners have a supportive environment and the opportunity to perform what they learned.

But the manager’s responsibility isn’t done there. In her book, “Wired to Grow,” author Britt Andreatta says that all of us find ourselves defaulting to the way we did some things earlier, a zone that might be more comfortable than what the new skill demands. She says 40 applications may be necessary before a new skill becomes a habit. That could add up to months.

Managers exert a great influence on the success of the training before and after. If the manager makes clear he values the training, sets expectations and an application schedule of expected performance upon the employee’s return, and both define success, skill will turn into performance.

Mistake No. 11: Outdated Instructional Strategies

Despite the evidence that people listening to lectures tune out as early as 10 minutes doesn’t keep some instructors from using it until the last person in the room has entered the Twilight Zone. The hippocampus in the brain is the recorder, but it gets overloaded very soon, and then it starts to filter the important from the unimportant. Then, it gives up entirely. The only way a lecture can be made worse is the instructor standing behind the lectern as the authority figure with a barrier between her and her class.

The second is reading to people or having them read to you. This is a holdover from practices in the first or second grade. It embarrasses people who cannot read very well, and it’s boring if it’s read to them. It is well to remember that the first time anyone read to us, it was called a bedtime story and the purpose was for us to fall asleep.

Each great invention or new convenience comes with its own issues and problems. PowerPoint is no different as it approaches its third decade in use. People have come to use it as a crutch so they don’t have to prepare or practice, rendering it the same as lecturing or reading to people. It has become a teleprompter in reverse. At least with a real one you are facing your audience and giving them a speech instead of conducting training where your “teleprompter” (read PowerPoint) is now facing your back.

It should only be used to show a picture where words alone will not give it context, or to invite comparisons with a pictograph, bar graph, pie chart, etc. Even then the data should be clearly marked, spaced well apart and limited. If the slide doesn’t clarify immediately or needs to be explained, it should not be used.

Lecture, reading, and PowerPoint are three of the five most natural cures for insomnia. The other two are sex and death and might be more desirable alternatives.

Mistake No. 12: The Classroom

In his book, “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School,” author John Medina writes. “If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.”

With desks arranged in rows and columns and lecterns in front in a sterile atmosphere, all of these foster a spirit of competition rather than cooperation that occurs when people sit together at tables. Research shows that people learn faster and retain more when they work together. The only reason why desks are arranged in rows and columns is that’s what people remember from school. It was also easier for the janitors to sweep the floors.

Mistake No. 13: Choking instead of Chunking

The officer told me that she knew her class was half asleep but she couldn’t give them a break. There was too much to teach in too little time. She had become content-centered and output-driven rather than outcome-driven. It became more important to get through the instruction rather than have people learn from it.

The fact is that the brain is like the stomach. It can take only so much information the same as the stomach can take only so much food. Both need smaller chunks and intervals to digest. Researchers say the brain can only process seven bits of new information in 30 seconds. Some say it is only four or five.

Finland is renowned for its academic achievement. Finnish students consistently rank as one of the highest in the world in math, science, and reading comprehension. After every topic the kids have 15 minutes of play time, which teachers regard as equally important as the subjects. I am not suggesting a 15-minute break every hour for adults. That is just enough time to cozy up to texting or phone conversations. Shorter, more frequent breaks work best.

Mistake No. 14: No Practice or Not Enough

On the evening of February 12, 2009, Colgan Flight 3407 took off from Newark, New Jersey bound for Buffalo, New York with passengers and crew that numbered 49. It would never arrive. On final approach to the runway, a stall warning came on automatically triggering the device that takes over the aircraft to right the stall. The pilot overrode the controls, and instead of pushing the yoke forward to increase airspeed, he pulled it back, increasing the stall. At that point, the lives of passengers and crew were measured in seconds. The plane gyrated losing even more airspeed, banked sharply, crashing into a private home, killing a man inside whose wife and daughter were fortunate enough to escape unharmed. The pilot, Captain Renslow had failed three flight checks, and while the Colgan Air's training records showed that stalls were covered in class, no one practiced the stall in a simulator. Well, at least the content was covered.

Training without practice is not training at all, it’s just a presentation or seminar. One third to one half of all training should involve practice. It’s one of the things that separates training from education, whose closest counterpart is called lab. Colgan flight 3407 provides a stunning example of what can happen when there is not enough practice or none at all.

Mistake No. 15: Insufficient Evaluation

In training there are four levels of evaluation: 1) reaction, 2) learning, 3) behavior and 4) results.

Reaction: This is the measure of how well the participants enjoyed the course or found it meaningful. Many smile sheets, as they are sometimes called are important only to the instructor, because it can be a boost to the ego if they are good. Usually they give little useful information the way they are designed.

That design is the Likert Scale. You may know it as numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 with little circles surrounding them. You then fill in the circle that best describes your experience. Accompanying those numbers may be words like usually, always, interesting, or plays nice with others. These words do not tell the true training story and become even more diluted and meaningless when reduced to a number. They become indecipherable when thrown into the stew of averages.

In our Instructor Development Course (Train-the-Trainer), we only use open-ended questions e.g. what did you find the most useful about the course? Please give us details. We add the “please give us details” in case we get close-ended responses such as “not much” or "nothing.” (Fortunately, we haven’t had any of those.) We ask no questions about the instructors under the assumption that if they like us or not, they will surely say something about us.

Learning: This is the measure of learning. It is pretty straightforward if the evaluation mirrors the objectives, but it should do more than that. It should test proficiency of a skill more than a task.

Behavior: This asks if the skill learned in training has been transferred to the workplace in the form of performance. This is the “after training” and it is key to the success of training. Is the manager supporting the training and taking an active role by insuring her employees are performing as trained? This is where training has its greatest challenges. Without managers meeting with their employees prior to the training and after it to ensure performance, the training is doomed to fail. For most companies and agencies, this step is regarded as too time-consuming, too costly, and unnecessary. Or worse, they don’t even know that it is vital part of the learning process.

Results: For upper management, this is what counts. Are we getting the bang for the buck with the training? Is it giving us more value than it costs? They do not care how popular or well-received the training might be, they only care about return on investment, or return on expectations.

A Parting Shot:

If you are in charge of a training unit, please consider the following:

o     Hire training performance professionals and allow them to be a part of any training decision. Ensure they have no problem disagreeing with
       you and that you have no problem hearing it.

o     Train and develop your training staff, It will pay off ten times over.

o     Make sure training is your last solution, never your first.

o    Remember that training will not cure a lack of: motivation, trust, communication, recognition or leadership.

o    Conduct analyses as a first step in the training process.

o    Only allow training professionals to write your training programs. Remember the immortal words of Satchel Paige.

o    Let training determine the time, not the other way around.

o    Discourage the use of PowerPoint. It doesn't teach anyone how to perform on the job, nor will it even teach them a skill. Save it for 
       presentations, not training. Make the learners walk, talk, and write.

o    Work with your employees before and after training. Set assignments, expectations and define success. View training as a process, not a 

o    Make instructors take a sacred blood oath that they will never start training with “the history of...” or start with a question like: "Have you
       ever wondered what Correction Law means to you?" They must also stuff the lectern in the broom closet in favor of a training table beside
       them--not in front of them.

o    Ensure field supervisors are onboard with mentoring, coaching, and observing people perform after training.

o    Be prepared to show a return on investment​​​

Make Training Great Again!

Disclaimer: These are the opinions of Edwin C. Pauzer. These are not necessarily the opinions of the agency for which I work. This agency is not responsible for the content or accuracy of this article​​