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Two tips for training managers

Training managers can be discouraging because they forget most of what you told them and fail to practice what they remember. A big part of the problem lies in the nature of management. Managers are dealing with complex situations at a rapid pace while working within the constraints of the organization. There isn’t necessarily time to remember an idea from training and figure out how that idea fits with the current context. It’s natural for managers to operate the way they always have, rather than apply what you’ve taught them.


Tip 1: Ask what we want them to do differently

One technique we can use to focus our training is to ask what we want managers to do differently. This is best conceived as “What is something they are doing now that seems like the right thing, but we want them to do something else instead?” This is harder to do than just listing new things we want them to start doing. It’s also harder than the question “What is something foolish we presume they are doing which we’ll teach them to improve on?” We need to assume managers are taking action that, at least from their perspective, is the right thing to do. We need to respect that and carefully show that there is a better approach.

Let me give one example from an innovation program I co-lead. Imagine, an employee suggests a minor change to improve efficiency. The manager recognizes that the impact of this will be small and that they need much bigger changes to hit their efficiency goals. As a result, the manager says, “No because we need to shoot for changes that will have a much bigger impact.” It’s easy to understand why they would say that, but they are presumably unaware of how by not embracing the suggestion they will be discouraging future ones. We need to shift them from saying “No because…” to “Yes, and let’s see how we can work from there to changes that will have a bigger impact.”

Notice that we are not suggesting the manager do anything extra, just that they replace a reasonable but suboptimal behaviour with a better one.

Tip 2: Link the new behaviours to past memories

It’s not enough to get managers to understand the value of a different behaviour. It needs to be ingrained so that it comes to them naturally in the heat of the moment. In effect, we need to rewire their brain so that the new behaviour becomes instinctual. How do we rewire a brain? We get people to think about their past experiences and then link the new idea to that experience. Let’s stick with the example around an employee offering a suggestion. Get the manager to reflect on situations they have been in where people were giving suggestions and how their manager responded. Now think about how it could have been done differently. The next time the manager is in a situation where an employee is giving a suggestion their mind will jump to memories of similar situations in the past. However, those memories are now tied to the new behaviour of encouraging innovations no matter how small. From there we get the new behaviour.


When I see managerial training, I often have the feeling that it is not got to have much impact. The ideas won’t translate from the classroom to the workplace for a variety of reasons. We need to re-think what we are trying to do and get away from the idea that we just need to pour our good ideas into the heads of managers.

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