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No More Mr. Nice Guy

Copyright June 1999, Training & Development, American Society for Training & Development. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Self management is essential in today’s work environment. Faced with constant change and volatility, employees must be able to work and act independently. Management scholar Peter Drucker, in a recent Training & Development interview, declared, “I no longer teach the management of people at work, which was one of my most important courses… I am teaching, above all, how to manage oneself.” (September 1998, p.24) Author Robert Kelley (How to Be a Star at Work, Times Business Books, 1998), found that self management was one of many star employee strategies. In studies at Bell Labs and 3M, he discovered that stars constantly ask themselves how they can be more valuable; they worry about what should get on their to-do lists. Self-managed people realize that it’s their responsibility, not the company’s; they readily take the initiative.

As trainers and developers, shouldn’t we also be encouraging employee responsibility and initiative? Why not emphasize self management in the learning environment itself? Recently, I conducted presentations training for one of the most dynamic, committed groups of young women I have ever encountered—a New York based marketing team of an international cosmetics company. In the two days we worked together, I was struck by their commitment to learning—to trying everything, thriving on creative thinking, and constantly applying the concepts to their jobs. These learners were not looking to be spoon-fed, nor did they agree with everything put before them. They made their own “to-do lists.” They were truly self managed.

On the flight home, I couldn’t help but think how wonderful it would be if every employee in every corporate learning environment were as committed. I asked myself how I, as a professional trainer, could help make this happen. I thought about my style and that of other trainers I have trained. In my experience, most trainers are caring, listening, dynamic, intelligent, and well read. They try hard, they question, and they do their homework. Most of them are also very nice.

For years, I have been a nice trainer. Being nice can be an asset in one’s life and career, but it can also be a detriment to helping others manage themselves. I’ve decided that the time has come for me to stop being nice. I will continue to be empathetic, dynamic, fun-loving, and kind, but here are some things, that after over fifteen years as a trainer, I refuse to do any more. They do nothing to help others take initiative. Why not review this list and make an honest self-assessment of your own niceness?

1. Over-prepare.
I have spent too much time planning activities to the last detail, only to have time run out while a more important discussion takes their place. I have over-prepared what I will say and under-prepared how I will listen. The success of the learning experience is not all on the trainer’s shoulders. The learners can take a discussion or an activity where they need it to go, and I can become invisible.

2. Be gracious when the room isn’t set up correctly.
Too often I have smiled and said, “Oh, that’s OK,” to some meeting planner or maintenance person or administrative assistant who had earlier agreed to be responsible for the correct room set-up. I will be firm about details that are crucial for a comfortable learning environment and a successful start.

3. Tolerate the manager’s last minute decision not to attend.
Research study after study proves that managers need to reinforce training to make it work. The leader’s presence is usually motivating and helpful to the transfer of learning to the job. How is the manager to know what went on if he or she wasn’t there?

4. Excuse those who didn’t do the prework.
For some reason, once adults leave formal schooling, it seems as if prework and homework are nearly impossible. I have seen people with MBAs become unable to write one paragraph the night before training to prepare for practicing a sales presentation. Prework is essential to setting the learning stage. Homework between multiple sessions also helps participants transfer concepts to their work world. Even if the dog ate it, it could appear in pieces and become a matching activity.

5. Do all of the chart writing.
Though I am a fan of the standard flipchart and all the creative thought opportunities it provides, I am tired of doing most of the charting. Others can print clearly; others have a gift of color selection; others can experience the same involvement with the subject that I achieve as the chart writer. The main skill involved in charting information is listening, and everyone needs practice listening.

6. Be intimidated by techno-babblers.
Participants who can spew forth techno-babble often achieve immediate status in a learning group. However, it is the eve of the new Millennium; we all have access to some technological information and we all know that these things change daily. In groups, it’s usually considered good etiquette not to overuse the jargon of your trade to the extent that others feel intimidated or lessened in some way. I will ask techno-wizards to explain themselves, and emphasize that it takes all kinds of wizardry to run a company.

7. Defend the material.
As a trainer, I have to project a positive attitude about the topic, but I will no longer defend others’ poorly written or outdated training material. Those issues should be addressed by the developers, and it’s my job to alert them. Also, it’s not my job to defend controversial ideas. I can present them; I will energize the thinking around them; I do not have to defend them.

8. Ignore offhand inappropriate comments.
You can actually find this as a recommended technique in some books: ignore them and they will stop. No longer will I allow any inappropriate comments, no matter how quietly made, to shatter the learning environment we’ve created for the rest of the group.

9. Give in to reasons not to take a break.
Frequently, there seem to be a few people who don’t want a break so they can leave earlier.  However, the break is an important part of the learning process. It allows for socializing or quiet thinking or a quick voice mail check to reduce tension. It’s harmful to skip breaks.

10. Tolerate floor hogs.
You’ve met them. They’re the people who delight in group events so they can take the floor about almost anything that pops into their heads. Too often I have waited too long for them to get to the point. There’s a polite way to interrupt floor hogs: “Joe, I hear your point, thank you, and I need to move on.”

11. Encourage quiet participants.
Quiet people need to manage their own learning in their own way. If it means losing their status in a vocal group, then that’s up to them. I am reminded of Zig Ziglar’s advice, “People who never take Step #1 never take Step #2.”

12. Allow people to leave the room without prior notice.
Different corporate cultures have different rules about attendance, including tardies and partial absences. Telecommunications has contributed to spotty attendance. With the advent of pagers, people began to be interrupted with “a good excuse” and now, with cell phones, there are even more excuses. However, there is really no excuse for disrupting discussion and others’ concentration.

13. Ignore people who don’t play along.
A learning experience works best when everyone is involved. There is no room for adults who won’t join in the activity. Unless they have some physical reason or an excuse from their physician, everyone should be involved in a group discussion or a role play or project. It was required when we were in school and it’s only fair.

14. Clean up.
The electricians I just hired to wire my kitchen counter lights left behind all sorts of wire clippings and little plastic things. When I asked my brother, who happens to be an electrician, why contractors never clean up, his response was, “At my union hourly rates, does the homeowner really want me doing the sweeping?” How about it, trainers? Think of all the productive ways you could be using your time instead of throwing away someone else’s coffee cups!

15. Pretend that I can hear.
Hearing loss is affecting a lot of baby boomers. Maybe it was the rock music, the loud nighttime singing waitress job, or just heredity, but I have admitted that I need hearing aids in the classroom. I am newly fitted with hearing aids and I’m ready to hear even the softest contributor.

I am committed to nurturing self-managed employees. If any of you happen to be in one of my training sessions someday and see me engaged in any of these 15 acts, please remind me of my commitment: I will happily write it on the chalkboard one hundred times.