David Guralnick: Learning, Technology, and Design

Why Won’t Those Damn Employees Just Listen?

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In talking with managers in a variety of companies in different industries, I often hear a familiar refrain: “We’ve told our employees what to do, but they just don’t do it!  What’s wrong with them? Why can’t they just do what they’re told?”

Here’s a story taken (and paraphrased) from Chip and Dan Heath’s terrific book Switch (p. 184): A management consultant named Peter Bregman was consulting to a company who had just moved from a paper-based timesheet system to a new, online system.  They rolled out a training course and then expected everyone to use the new, online system.  But most people kept submitting paper forms, ignoring the new system.  As a next step, management ordered that all employees use the online  system, it was mandatory.  Still, only half the people followed the plan.  Finally, management considered withholding people’s paychecks unless they used the new system!  Fortunately, Bergman convinced them to look deeper into why people weren’t using the new system, instead of just assuming that their employees were just stubborn. When they did some interviews, they found that people found the new system difficult to use–and then when they observed the system in use, they saw that the “wizard” that was supposed to make the data-entry process easier just made it confusing.  They simplified the system, allowing people to fill out traditional forms online, and all was well.  Within a few weeks, everyone was using the new system.

That’s quite a story, and, among other things, shows the effects that poorly-designed technology can have on an organization.  But one of the key points here is that the company’s management initially thought that what the staff needed was “knowledge”–we just need to tell them what to do, and they’ll do it.   As it turns out, what looks like a “knowledge” problem isn’t always a knowledge problem.

I’ve heard similar stories from companies I have consulted to many times:  Employees have been trained and re-trained–why won’t they just do what they’re supposed to do?  And why do we have so many employees with bad attitudes?  While the “answer” to such a question isn’t always clear-cut, here are a number of potential reasons:

  • People didn’t really grasp the concepts or skills that were intended to be taught.  Sure, it’s all well and good to say that people were “taught,” or “trained”–but that could mean lots of things.  Did people learn in a way that was active and in which skills would transfer to on-the-job-performance?  Much of the narrator-driven e-learning we still see in companies today tends to be ineffective.
  • The real-life task is perceived as unnecessarily cumbersome or difficult.  This is what we saw in the Heath brothers’ story about the online timesheets, possibly along with the above point.  People in the Heath story weren’t being stubborn for the sake of being stubborn, they just found the new system hard, and annoying, to use.
  • Cultural issues–“everyone” follows a different process.  This is probably a topic for a post of its own, with some supporting research cited, but for now let’s just mention this one:  even if a certain process is mandated by, say, headquarters, there may be historical reasons why people do things a different way, and people will tend to fit in with their peers in such a situation.  Sometimes, their peers also have a better process than HQ requires, but that’s also a post for another day.
  • New habits have not been reinforced.   This is especially relevant when rolling out a new or changed process:  people may have learned and even internalized the new way to do things, but when they’re in “automated” mode in real life, they could easily fall back into old habits unless other actions are taken to help people remember the “new” habit, or to change the environment to make the new ways of doing things seamless.  This is another topic that deserves its own post…

At its root, corporate training really is about changing behavior–which is a lot broader than just “training” or “teaching,” especially in today’s world.  In order to see new employees perform well right out of the gate, or current employees improve their performance or follow a new process, we need more than just traditional education–we need to think about the company culture, about what motivates people, about having processes that make it easy to do things the right way.  At the same time, we need to be careful about dismissing people as just “bad employees”–sure, some people are just not the right fit for a job or are just not going to do well no matter what, but I’d argue that in most cases, if you set people up to succeed, they will.  So there’s a high note on which to end this post!

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Written by dguralnick

August 28, 2012 at 5:52 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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