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Too busy for learning!

There are certain phrases that we have probably all heard because they are all too common in organisations. One of the ones I dislike the most is this one… ‘We have no time to develop our people.’

The saddest thing about this phrase is that it simply isn’t the truth. It is a powerful perception that can overrule thinking, but it is inaccurate. As well as this, saying it can actually cause harm to an organisation and discredit the person who says it.

The first implied message when a leader in a business says that they don’t have time to develop their people is that staff development is not important…or not important enough. At this point, staff can look at the organisation and say, “My development does not matter to you!” Now, given that self-development is recognised as being 1 of 3 key intrinsic motivators, taking this away has a huge impact on motivation, engagement and productivity. As an organisation, you have just made things harder for yourself.

The second thing about this statement is that it shows the staff that you simply don’t understand how learning needs to and can happen in a business. This may even be true, but it isn’t helpful to stop there…at a point of accidental ignorance. Instead, leaders need to look for what can be done, how things can change in order to bring learning back into the business. Please note that for the purposes of this blog, I am talking about creating a learning culture, not just elearning that is done for legal reasons!

The ‘not having time’ idea comes from a very short-term approach to priority management. If I simply tell you what to do and make sure you do it day by day, then we have done what we need to. And whilst there is some truth in that, the core issues remain. Let me use an illustration from my own life to expand on this.

A few years ago, my son started to walk, by which I mean, I stopped picking him up and just gently edged backwards away from him until he started to take his first steps. Now, from this point forth I had a couple of choices. Firstly, I could go for a quick fix. Whenever we needed to get anywhere, I could just scoop him up. We will be much faster that way and I avoid the hassle of holding his hand, waiting as he takes tiny steps, distracted by anything he may see at his eye level. No, of course, it is much quicker if I stunt his walking skills and just carry him places. In the end, we all get to where we need to, so what is the worry? There is no need for him to develop, but there is just a slight downside that in 18 years, he still hasn’t learned and I am still carrying him…only now it is much harder, takes far longer and is actually now causing me damage, as well as continuing to inhibit him.

Clearly, this would be idiotic. You don’t need to be a parent to see why this approach is wrong for so many reasons…and yet this same logic is often applied in organisations when it comes to learning. I don’t have time to take the steps alongside you and guide you. Instead, I will just carry you along (telling you what to do and not asking you to think), and in doing so I will have a short-term view and create a cultural mindset of staff that says, “No one invests in us. Our development is not that important. Just wait to be told what to do and then do it.”

And this mindset is both limiting and damaging. But thankfully there is another way!

It is very rare that someone needs development and/or training in an area or task that has never been done. As such there should always be a go-to person who can help with this. It may be the team leader/manager or it may be another expert in the organisation. Once you have identified this person, follow these 3 simple steps:

  1. I do
  2. We do
  3. You do

And it really is that simple.

Step 1. I do: I will do it (manager or nominated expert) and you can watch. This is a great chance to see exactly how it should be done. Some people who are visual learners will pick it up immediately. For them, watching is the best way to learn and they will have got all they need from observation. As you show them, make sure you explain to them what you are doing at each step, this is great for those who learn through hearing, which will be further supported by watching you.

Step 2. We do: This is the collaboration stage. It creates safety for the learner. They are getting the hang of this, but have not been cut loose. You are their safety net if it looks like something might go wrong. Some people learn best by doing…and so these people will be in their element. It gives you a chance to assess them, to see what they learned first time around. It also gives you a chance to reflect on your own communication style. If they seem completely lost and don’t know what to do, it may be that you didn’t go at the right pace in Step 1.

Step 3. You do: This is where you step back, observe and see them in action, standing on their own. This may well be the ‘scariest’ step for the learner, and also for the leader. This the point at which hand holding ends and you see what people are capable of. Provided steps 1 and 2 have been followed, it is a very exciting moment as it shows that the staff member is now more developed than they were and it shows the manager that they can develop their people!

There are a number of things happening as you go through this process, all of which are great reasons to carry on developing your people.

  1. Knowledge transfer – quite simply you are sharing the knowledge in your head! The old phrase goes that ‘Knowledge is Power’…but there is no helpful power in keeping the knowledge to yourself. Perhaps a slight edit to this should be, ‘Correct use of knowledge can be powerful.
  2. Leader credibility – if leaders show that they can develop their teams, have the desire to grow skills, capabilities and behaviours, then it builds their standing with their team in the business and enhances their credibility.
  3. Future preparation – developing staff helps to future-proof the business by building capability. Sometimes leaders will find this difficult or will be nervous about the idea of developing someone capable of taking their role, but the reality is, the leader themselves may well be developed enough to move on, and so everyone benefits.

Learning and development only have an impact if it can be sustained in the right organisational environment. Part of the role of a leader is to cultivate that environment, to allow growth. Think of it like gardening. The gardener can have the desire for plants to grow, but without the right soil, sunlight, weeding and rock removal…nothing grows. It is the same with a learning environment, and there is one really simple thing that can be done – make it safe! Learning happens through mistakes most of the time. We learn to walk through falling. We learn clutch control by stalling the car. From my early experiences, I learned how fast I could ride a bike down a hill by crashing into a ditch and a wall (and still have the scars!)

All this sounds good, but if an organisation does not focus on support and encouragement, it will more likely be looking for errors. As such, when someone makes a mistake or something goes wrong, all eyes are on them. In this kind of atmosphere, no one wants to take risks. No one dares to try something new or apply their latest knowledge. It is better to stay safe and do the ‘same old, same old.’ And so, learning is stifled! I was recently working in an organisation when a member of staff said to me, “The main thing is don’t mess up, so you stay off the radar!” How sad?! My first question, was “Why is it only bad things that ‘get you on the radar’?” She did not reply, but it was indicative of the culture – you only get noticed when you mess up! As such, no one tries to be brave. Everyone seeks permission and the same struggles to achieve targets come around month after month.

Every organisation has the time to invest in and develops its people – it is a matter of prioritisation, but the great news is, it doesn’t have to be a huge change. Small daily changes, shifts in mindset and re-purposing of existing routines can help to very quickly move things along…and then the metrics will (mostly) take care of themselves!

Learning Pool’s e-learning catalogues provide a great start and offer a fully flexible and future proofed learning solution.

About the author

Having worked in L&OD for over a decade, Nathan Dring has experience in sales, service, SME and retail. Whilst at Asda, Nathan set up and led the learning and development function for the global contact centre estate and it was during this time he was very involved in the Top 50. He was also a judge at the European Contact Centre and Customer Service awards, delivered keynote messages at both Top 50 events and the Contact Centre Expo and helped to develop the BSC in Managing the Customer Contact now run at Ulster University.

Nathan was Head of Global Organisational Development at thebigword, before setting up Nathan Dring and Associates Limited in 2018.


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