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Leader Pulse
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When Learners Raise Their Hands

By Terri Sota

Terri SotaFor a recent GO magazine article, I asked DDI facilitators about the top-of-mind concerns of learners. What is it they want answered (even when they’re afraid to ask)?

Given that oceans separate their classrooms, I expected wildly varied responses. Instead, I found that learners around the world were similarly preoccupied. They want to know:

  • “Will this course be worth my time?”
  • “Is my manager receiving this training?”
  • “How can I make a difference?”
  • “How do I find time to implement what I’ve learned?”

For the sake of space, I had to cut other “universal” concerns (and deft demonstrations of facilitating) from my article. To make amends, I’ve gone back to the heads of the classroom for the omitted questions and for additional insights into the questions-behind-the-questions.

“Does what happens in the classroom stay in the classroom?”

Raise their handsOf concern to many are the potential consequences of sharing both self and organizational truths. For this reason, facilitators go to great lengths to create and sustain a safe learning environment. They know that building trust with, and among, participants is critical.

"The higher the audience level," says John Verdone, manager global facilitation excellence, "the riskier it is to attend the workshop.” Leaders worry that they will be unmasked, and their vulnerabilities exposed. “It isn't easy to admitI’m probably not as strong as I could be in this particular area, so I’d like to work on it,’” says Verdone. “I’ve got to convince them to try out what they’ve learned in the face of probable failure the first time out. It’s about owning up to development needs."

“Working with more senior-level audiences, 95 percent of the pushback is on skill practicing,” says Bill Akins, senior consultant, DDI learning systems. “They always want to know why they have to do role-plays. As a licensed pilot, I’m quick to use the flight simulator analogy, which works very effectively here.”

“Directors and above struggle with embarrassment more than frontline leaders, but this really stems from self-doubt,” continues Akins. “I’ve been asked, ‘What if I screw this up in front of my peers? What happens if I fall short?’ That’s what we want you to do, I answer. If you’re going to break it, break it here…that way we can fix it. But once you break it outside, there’s nobody there to fix it for you.”

Participants also want to know about sharing feelings. “Something I hear often is ‘Is it okay to discuss emotions?’” says Steph Fergusson, senior consultant. “‘Shouldn’t we leave them at the door?’ I tell them it’s important to express what they’re feeling and listen to the feelings of others, if they are to build trust. However, I make the point that they should exercise sound judgment when it comes to determining what, when, and how to share.”

How much of an issue is confidentiality? “I think it depends on who is in the audience,” says Diana Powell, senior consultant/learning systems. “If someone has a leader or a peer they aren’t getting along with, he or she may struggle with sharing. I assure them that they’re not going to mention specifics of a situation (like a person’s name, for instance) when we do skill practice; they’re going to keep it generic. We’re not in the session to dis anyone; we can just talk about behaviors.”

Cultural differences influence how, and how much, participants are willing to share. “I work with some groups that just aren’t comfortable asking questions and expressing opinions in class,” says Verdone. “They consider it rude to interrupt or monopolize the conversation. I put them at ease by having them first work in small groups, during which they can appoint a spokesperson to report out. This way, the voice belongs to the group, rather than the individual.”

“How do other organizations handle this challenge?”

"Being able to answer this is part of the great value we bring," says Verdone. Higher-level participants want to know what their industry peers are doing to respond to market forces. DDI facilitators can draw upon their own experience working within a specific industry, as well as decades of DDI research and a network of other facilitators. "I can always say, you know it's interesting that you bring that up. A few weeks ago, I was with a client who had the same issue, and this is how the company dealt with it."

"I also hear that a lot," adds Akins. "Coming in, participants know that I have a lot of clients in their same industry. When I'm asked about a particular company, I'll say well, what do you mean what's happening with so-and-so? I'm not going to tell you about their business. Instead, I help them to zero in on what they really want to know—like how to manage a highly diverse workforce that extends from the boardroom to the gas drilling sites.”

Not only do participants appreciate learning about how others are handling similar problems, they also are relieved to hear that they’re not alone. "At the lower levels, sometimes they don't know that the problem they are having is a known problem,” says Meagan Aaron, senior consultant/learning systems. “When we sort through the challenges they are facing and place them in buckets, we can better identify what the bigger problems are. I can assure them that they're normal, that other leaders or companies are also struggling with the same things, and that we can help. I can tell them that I've been out in the field talking to a lot of their peers, and they’re not the only one going through that.”

“How do I manage performance issues?”

Regardless of the training course or leader level, performance management is a hot topic for participants. Primarily, participants are stressed about giving feedback and having uncomfortable conversations.

"When I ask a class to name their top challenges," says Powell, "I always get ‘How do I tell someone they're not doing well without making them (and subsequently, me) feel awful?’ That's where the power of the Interaction Guidelines [DDI's process for meeting both professional and personal needs (like esteem) when delivering feedback or having coaching conversations] comes in.”

Leaders also worry about making choices between team members and damaging relationships. "Participants ask ‘How can I differentiate between two people I perceive as equally competent performers?’" says Sujatha Kewin, a facilitator with DDI India. "When we help them get down to it and talk about analyzing both the operational (the what) and the behavioral (the how) data to measure achievement, it clears up their confusion. Almost 100 percent of the time, participants realize and accept that two team members are never actually performing equally."

Sometimes what appears to be a performance management issue isn't; rather, it's a matter of leadership. When one participant asked about having to give the same raise to two different employees, one of whom was on Facebook all day, the facilitator helped the leader recognize that a lack of accountability was the real problem.

Other issues revolve around strategic priorities. Both first- and mid-level leaders wrestle with effectively implementing performance management, "which they see as an HR tool,” says Aaron. "Their struggle is about separating it from being an HR tool and putting it back into the business so they can better decide on which of the many competing priorities their teams should focus."

To read more Questions from the Classroom, check out the 2016 Vol. 14, No. 1 issue of GO magazine and view this video—The Elephant in the Training Room.

Terri Sota is a contributing writer for DDI’s GO magazine.

Posted: 03 Aug, 2016,
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