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When More Training Is Not the Answer

November 13, 2013

by Renya Larson, PHI Organizational Change Consultant

What does it take for employees to use the skills they learn in training? How do you move from the “what if” world of the classroom to the “real world” on the job?

Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) has been innovating new answers to these questions. Since 2007, CHCA has offered all staff extensive training and boosters in PHI’s Coaching ApproachSM skills. “We made this investment because we want Coaching to be a way of life at CHCA,” says Executive Vice President Adria Powell. “And our people certainly use Coaching every day in all kinds of situations. But we noticed that certain behaviors just weren’t changing, and it didn’t seem like offering more training would make a difference. How could we get our staff to become more self-aware about their own Coaching practices? And how could we shift the staff’s understanding of their own accountability for that? In other words, how could we encourage them to set their own goals for interpersonal growth?”

These questions guided discussions between PHI staff, CHCA’s leadership and its Coaching Sustainability Committee (CSC) at the beginning of 2013. Together, they developed an experiential activity that has been field-tested by CHCA’s managers. This activity harnessed the power of feedback as a tool for personal reflection and change.

INTERVENTION

The key elements of the activity were as follows:

  • Managers were guided through a process of self-reflection in order to identify one interpersonal behavior that they wanted to receive feedback about.
  • Managers selected four people (senior leaders or peers) to ask to give them feedback about the behavior they identified.
  • People who were asked to give feedback used a one-page form to do so. The form invited them to provide suggestions about how the manager might modify their behavior: what might they consider continuing, “pausing” (stopping), and starting?
  • After receiving the written feedback, Managers met in person with each of the people who provided them with feedback in order to clarify any aspect of the feedback that they did not understand.
  • Managers worked individually with their senior managers to reflect on the feedback they received, and to set an interpersonal goal related to this feedback.

“Some of us were nervous about this activity when we first heard about it,” says Service Delivery Manager Yarleen Anavitate. “But it was designed in a way that felt safe.” Specifically, Managers maintained control over: which behavior they would ask for feedback about, and who they would ask to provide that feedback.

Still, even with the careful design, this kind of experiment was only possible because of the high level of skill of the Managers. These Managers had already had substantial training in the skill of giving feedback, so they were well-prepared to offer each other feedback in a way that was respectful and constructive. Managers had also been trained in the art of receiving feedback, specifically by learning how to manage their own internal responses and defenses.

OUTCOMES

PHI conducted a “Learning Circle” with CHCA’s Managers recently in order to capture their learning. Some of the responses included:

  • “We don’t get much time for self-reflection. This really forced me to make time for it, and that’s so important.”
  • “It made me realize that I don’t usually ask my colleagues for feedback about my behavior. I learned a lot from doing this and I want to do it more often.”
  • “I got some great tips for modifying my behavior. I feel very open to the feedback and grateful for it.”
  • “This activity really helped me set goals for my own growth.”
  • “This feedback helped me build new relationships and that feels important — it’s expanded my circle.”

While we are delighted with the learning that clearly resulted from this activity, it’s too soon to know what will be the longer-term outcomes. We hope that this activity will support Managers in making sustained behavioral changes. We also hope that CHCA’s Managers will feel more comfortable giving and receiving  feedback in the future. We will be looking for evidence of these outcomes over time. If needed, we will also work with the Managers to design additional activities that might be needed.

CONCLUSION

Learning new communication skills is a complex process that begins — but does not end — in the classroom. In order for employees to master new skills that 
they learn in training, they need support in applying these skills on the job. Organizations need to create opportunities for this application that are carefully structured to ensure that employees feel safe enough to take the risk to try new skills in “real world” settings. As is clear from CHCA, the results can be powerful.

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