Culture vs. Training Is It “Nature vs. Nurture”?

Ed Francis
Managing Director, Root

I love a good provocative philosophical debate! A classic example: Are we who we are because of nature or nurture? Most people will say it’s both, but some vehemently take a polar position and stick to it. At the risk of over-generalizing (which means I’m about to over-generalize), people in Training & Development unwittingly take a similar polar stand. They do this by overemphasizing training – nurture – and ignoring environmental and cultural influences on behavior – nature.

So what would it look like it if we applied common training approaches to a house plant? First, we’d show the seedling a video of how it will look when it’s mature. Then, we’d set some context by explaining the impact of plants on the human psyche, or how chlorophyll helps convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. We’d give the little plant some best practices for growing straight and getting proper sunlight. Finally, we’d ask it questions about the Carbon Cycle, and if it scored less than 80% on a knowledge check, we’d ask it to find a new pot.

The reality is that, given the proper environment and basic care, a plant will grow. Now, most people are very different from plants, but the same principles still apply. Given the proper environment, people can excel in the absence of formal training. However, it doesn’t work in reverse. Formal training will not cause people to excel in the absence of a good environment.

Trainers as Change Agents

Training departments must view themselves as “change agents” so they can develop strong programs. In its simplest form, training means taking people from a current state and helping them acquire the necessary knowledge, behaviors, and attitudes that will move them to a desired future state.

In the training world, we don’t really talk about “change management.” That’s usually reserved for the Organizational
Development world. But really – what is training, if not change management? In the training world, I’ve seen too many educators and instructional designers who focus only on instilling knowledge. People say, “This is what they need to know,” as if knowledge alone will change a person’s performance! The purpose of training is not simply to instill knowledge, but to help people change themselves to be successful.

For training to be successful, we need to present information in an effective way (knowledge), develop skills (behaviors) through observation and practice, and create an environment in which people want to change (attitude).

Knowledge

There are entire university graduate programs dedicated to the principles of adult learning. Still, a few items are often overlooked. When we’re designing instruction intended to improve performance, the language should shy away from corporate-speak. Training departments should reflect the style of the end-user, not an executive. As soon as corporate-speak begins, the chances of learners internalizing the messages decreases, and we actually create a resistance to change. In my experience, corporate training departments cater to the needs of project sponsors and subject matter experts more than to end users. Actually, this is an example of not being a change agent to improve performance.

Behaviors

Knowledge is great, but if behaviors don’t reflect that knowledge, then the training dollars are wasted. Methods to change behaviors include:

  1. Modeling the desired behavior
  2. Providing clear instruction and expectations.
  3. Allowing for practice and repetition.
  4. Reinforcing behaviors as needed.
  5. Providing enough experience for mastery to occur.

While the methods are simple, changing behaviors is tough! It requires planning, time, and often heavy collaboration with Operations. Most training departments allow too many barriers for proper behavioral change, and we let it happen! To be effective change agents, trainers must design practical programs that include proven behavioral change methods,
and strongly advocate for them.

Attitude

Even with appropriate knowledge and behaviors, everyone faces a choice to use them or not. This reflects attitude, and it’s most influenced by the environment in the organization. Training is often used as an attempt to compensate for a lousy environment. As I mentioned earlier, the best training program will fail in a poor environment. While leadership drives organizational culture, it’s the frontline manager who determines the local culture. So if we connect the dots, trainers must consider the skills and decisions of local leaders when trying to improve performance.

To summarize ideas from Patrick Lencioni, there are three key actions that will create an environment where employees choose to think and act in a way that enables performance improvement:

  1. Avoid employee anonymity.
  2. Show employees that their actions are relevant to customers.
  3. Measure performance and hold employees accountable.

Sound simple? For trainers, it’s not. It means that training departments must address and work with Operations to improve performance.