Trainable People

by Krishna on June 10, 2007

A manager’s job can be very stressful. The toughest part, in my opinion, is the fact that it doesn’t really matter what the manager does personally. The only thing that really matters is the performance of the people working under the manager. If they do their work correctly, the manager succeeds. If they don’t, the manager fails. So, the manager should be always looking at how to help their subordinates succeed through whatever means possible.

One reason for failure is simply the fact that people don’t know something. This could be a technology, skill, tactic or even personality trait. For example, a subordinate who doesn’t know how to handle customer interaction well may cause problems, even though he or she may be a highly skilled employee. As a manager, it is important to identify what your team needs to know to succeed and then train the team members in them.

By training, I don’t mean identifying a bunch of subjects and then assigning a trainer to teach the team. That is also part of training, but what I am talking about goes much more. Training your team is about coaching and mentoring. It is about taking an approach of incremental development of your team members in addition to the big-bang approach of classroom training.

Let me give you a few examples of what I am talking about:

  • Teaching people to identify and correct flaws in processes when a problem occurs. For example, when a bug is identified by a customer, identify what additional checks need to be done in development and testing.
  • Helping people use data to analyze problems and make decisions, and avoid emotional judgments. A good start would be to teach logical fallacies.
  • Even if you know the answer to a problem, help your team members find answers themselves (provided you have time) by doing the research and learning themselves. This increases their independence and reduces reliance on you.
  • Encourage people to question assumptions and not accept something as gospel without careful analysis.
  • Delegate more. Trust more. The more responsibilities you give people, the better they are able to rise to them.

From a manager’s viewpoint, you can start focusing on helping your people become better at their jobs, share your knowledge with them and help them grow. But sometimes, you hit a roadblock. You find some people on your team who don’t respond to training. There are a variety of reasons, but interestingly enough, it is not the lack of capability that is the most common cause. It is the lack of “trainability”.

Let me explain what this means. Suppose a person, John Smith, is weak in ASP.NET. You recognize the problem and start training him in .NET. Then you realize that he is actually weak in programming itself. So you hold back on the .NET training and concentrate on programming fundamentals. If John is reasonably intelligent, he will pick up on programming and then you can build upon that and start training him again in ASP.NET. It will take time, but finally John will be a competent .NET developer.

If John has poor analytical capability, then it will be very tough to teach him programming logic and structures. He will continue to struggle even though he knows the basic elements. You will also have to continuously review his work because his output will always need refactoring. Without a good foundation, John will fail to grow in the role that he is currently playing in the organization. In simple words, he is in the wrong career.

But let us take the case where John is actually intelligent and has some deficiencies, but is not willing to admit it. What happens then? When you recognize his basic weakness in programming and inform him that he needs to get trained in the basics, he will oppose it. Or he may not say something and the training “washes” over him without anything sticking. Nothing has changed, except for the effort you put in.

I have run across this phenomenon a few times and I could not understand how to express it. But recently, I read Seth Godin’s article about “being coachable” and it hit the target spot-on. The thing is that you can only teach people who want to learn. Only people who can put their egos aside can learn from others. If a person has a hunger to learn, he will learn from anybody or anywhere.

Some people start developing a unreal concept of themselves at some point. They create a larger-than-life image of themselves and become quite inflexible. Sometimes, a life event like getting married or added responsibilities can trigger this. Sometimes this is gradual as the person gains knowledge and experience and suddenly think that they have hit a milestone. And they stop being able to accept new ideas.

As a manager, this results in a huge problem, namely, loss of control. Let us say that you have a person working under you. You observe a problem that must be fixed. You ask the person to change her actions to avoid the problem in future. You expect the person to agree to the cause-and-effect and either not repeat the same actions or inform you if there is no other alternative. What you do not expect is a direct contradiction of your instructions without any explanations.

Such an issue creates loss of trust. The manager in you is now forced to treat the person as a loose cannon and avoid situations where there is a possibility of catastrophic failure. It also puts additional burden on other members of the team. The biggest problem is that you cannot grow as a team and be able to handle new circumstances and situations.

As a manager, identify the people who will grow with you and encourage them. Identify those who cannot learn with you and remove them from the team at the earliest opportunity that presents itself. The resultant team will be a powerhouse.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: