When you attend training, what do you hope to get out of it? Do you expect to get step by step instructions or the answer on how to solve a problem? Do you expect the person training you to be better at the task than you? Is it Ok with you that person a professional trainer/instructor with no practical experience in the subject?
There are many approaches to training but in the male-dominated workplace the primary approach has been for the more experienced, more knowledgeable person to train the less experienced, less knowledgeable. The trainee watches and copies what the trainer does. When I worked with trades, this was called OJT – on the job training. In my office environments, I noticed female managers give their female employees step-by-step instructions which they were supposed to write down then replicate on their own to accomplish the task. Female employees with a female supervisor are typically shown how to accomplish a task once, whereas male employees under a male supervisor are often placed with a sink or swim situation – if they need help, they have to ask. In either case, most training seems to be rote and based on memorization of steps.
I first became acutely aware of how we teach and train while I was in college. We memorized formulas and equations and in which situations to apply them to. If you could remember a homework problem that was like the test question, you used the same formula and applied the same sequence of events. It seemed kids that were good at memorization were the A students. To me, this was boring so I came up with a different approach.
I dove into understanding the formulas. I asked myself “why” continuously until I understood the relationships and how each element worked and its limitations. I tell people this is why I don’t understand electricity – I got down to asking “why” does an electron excites the next electron – what makes that happen? Since no one could explain, I gave up on understanding electricity and consequently did not do well in that class.
But my other classes turned around. I was no longer bored, I was applying myself. My approach was to understand the fundamental principles then apply them to a problem – understand then think my way through to solve a problem. I became a lot more involved in my classes – I started asking more questions and my professors ate it up. They came out of their trance and started explaining their theories, their thoughts and their logic.
We were thinking.
But at work, we try to train employees by memorization of steps without ever explaining why. As supervisors and managers, we do the thinking and we tell employees what to do. Isn’t that what makes us managers – we think for the doers? Isn’t that how we distinguish ourselves – through our intellect?
Last week I was on a webinar about training employees. The consultant’s concept was that as a manager, your job is not to give answers to your employees but to lead them in thinking and solving the problem on their own. He said to do what I did in college – ask “why”. Ask employees how they would solve the problem then as they go through the steps, ask “why” and keep digging deeper and they will refine the answer or change it altogether for a different approach. Employees who are not accustomed to coming up with answers will produce less than ideal answers and according to the consultant that is OK. As a manager you are the trainer and you need to accept the less than ideal solution or keep asking “why” until the employees arrive at an acceptable and workable solution.
This is the same concept I use in my Process Meetings. I let my team develop the process as a team and my role is to guide them, ask questions and make them delve in deeper. The concept requires that as the manager, I stand back, if not subordinate my position and let my team take the lead.
However, the problem is that many managers get frustrated with the less than ideal solution, take over and start providing THE answer according to themselves and employees are expected to just follow the manager’s instructions. As a result employees don’t learn how to think, problem solve or be creative.
There were a lot of men on the webinar that struggled with the consultant’s concept. One man was even bold enough to say he was writing a “book of answers” for his company. He was listing all of the conceivable problems his company could come across and THE correct solution. To date he had over 200 problems and solutions identified and he planned on distributing his book to all employees. He was taken back when the consultant said this was the wrong approach. Actually, the consultant didn’t answer right away but we could hear his thoughts loud and clear “Haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve been saying? This isn’t about you and your knowledge, this is about letting your employee think.”
The male-dominated workplace embraces the concepts like Mr. Answerman proposed and it wasn’t until I attended these webinars that I realized how bad it was. On the next webinar which discussed applying this concept to construction, I thought the consultant and I were on a different planet than the other men. It made me think back to the previous webinar – what was the Answerman with the “book of answers” really after – improving company performance or impressing everyone with his superior knowledge? The guy gave me the creeps!!
The problem with THE solution is that it only applies to one particular situation. The next time THE solution is used, the situation is not exactly the same, it may be similar but there will be variations. So, the ideal solution is no longer so ideal. It needs to be modified. Who does that? Who comes up with the new ideal solution? Does all work stop until it goes back to Mr. Answerman and he comes up with THE NEW IMPROVED solution?
I kid you not, but there were men on this webinar who would say “yes!”
But the answer is “no.” Employees need to be capable of solving problems on their own. “Ideal” solutions developed by experts in the remote vacuum of their experience and intellect work until they hit the Reality of the actual workplace. This is a difficult concept to get across in the male-dominated workplace. Even in trying to find a picture for this article, teachers and trainers are portrayed at the front of the class, while students/trainees sit and listen. I was looking for a picture that shows employees solving a problem while the manager stands back and the one I used is the closest I found. I think that says a lot about our perceptions of training and learning.
As managers we need to help employees do what I did in college – employees need to understand the fundamental principles of their job and tasks, then think their way through their application by asking “why” in order to solve the problem. Understanding and thinking that leads to creativity!
Whenever I discuss this subject I think back several years when I saw a T shirt that read “Think – It’s Not Illegal”. I didn’t buy the T shirt but periodically, I make a BIG sign for my office that says just that!
One final thought – have you asked “WHY” the male-dominated workplace approaches training and problem solving this way? Why aren’t employees taught to think and solve problems? I will answer that is my next article.
Empowered Women Encourage Their Team to Think and Teach Them to Solve Problems