Recent polling data doesn’t bode well. The conclusion from Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, published in June, still reverberates in human resources departments, executive suites, and safety and health departments: most American workers either hate their jobs or don’t care one way or the other about them.
Less than a third of Americans are actively engaged in their work, meaning they are “really into it,” enthusiastic, and energetic. Those workers are consistently productive, and are your best performers. But Gallup estimates that 20 million employees are “actively disengaged” at work— openly negative and often vocal about their “issues” with the job. And that is very bad for productivity of course, harming quality and damaging customer relations by creating new negative experiences.
For context, this is the reason workers respond poorly to training programs—they don’t want to be at work in the first place. For these folks, it’s natural that workforce training programs become another part of the job to complain about. The 70% of the workforce that simply doesn’t care much for their job and is “actively disengaged”, can pose problems in the training room. While we can’t make people fall in love with the work, we can make sure that these individuals don’t ruin an effective, necessary training experience for the employees that want to be trained well.
As a training professional, here’s what you can do...
Be on the lookout in particular for passive/aggressive employees who nod their heads and seem to go along with training, but then turn around and trash your efforts when you leave the room.
“Can’t believe this is the training we have to take? Who picked it? How boring can it get?”
What do you do? First, remind them that in most cases, these same employees are paid to receive critical basic instruction that is for their safety and wellbeing. The most aggressive resistors may not show up for any of your training classes, and will become an HR discipline problem. Employees who show no respect should be asked to leave directly. While it may be difficult, you must set the example for zero tolerance for any worker personally bullying or verbally assaulting a peer or training professional.
“MOST PEOPLE COME TO WORK WELL INTENTIONED AND ONLY TURN SOUR WHEN THEIR BASIC
NEEDS AREN’T BEING MET. YOU HAVE TO GET THE BASICS RIGHT IF YOU WANT GREAT ENGAGEMENT.”
In general though, for handling more subtle disruption, psychologists say positive reinforcement pays off in the long run more than punishment. You’re never going to get 100% engagement. Focus your energy on ‘catching people doing the right things’ during training sessions. Compliment employees for their questions and curiosity. Respect opinions, but never allow a training class to become a venting session—that wastes time. Efficiency in training programs benefits the company, but also the employee, who can get back to work quickly doing the jobs they are paid to do. You are the authority, and you have ‘never’ rules that apply to employee conduct during training just as ‘never’ rules apply out on the shop floor. For example, ‘never’ tolerate disrespectful comments or statements of harassment, just as employees in high-risk work environments should ‘never’ break protocol related to lockout/tagout requirements.
Recognition is a form of positive feedback. Recognize publicly—unless individuals have told you privately they are uncomfortable with public recognition—high test scores, insightful questions, and participation in role-playing, demonstrations, or simulation exercises in your training program. Applaud the efforts of employees who are not natural public speakers that stand and tell the story of their own near miss, or injury. It takes guts, an honorable sense of sharing, and a desire to make a positive difference, hopefully preventing someone else from being injured.
Don’t Get Defensive
Don’t take it personal. It’s hard, but try not to react defensively when workers bring up criticisms about your training. There are many reasons training session draw criticism. It could be your personal training style, or the training topic, the delivery method, or the sense that time is being wasted (which of course it isn’t). This is where emotional intelligence comes into play. To defuse the situation and put everyone in the room at ease, listen seriously to what’s being said to you. Ask follow-up questions. Agree when it’s appropriate— honesty is always appreciated, and criticism presents an opportunity to discuss your plans for improving the program.
If you don’t have an answer to a question, say so. And follow-up when you do obtain information that permits you to answer, to show accountability.
It’s Not Your Fault
Remember, most workers coming to your training session are not out to get you. Polls may say they “hate” their jobs, but really, how many times have you heard that? Proceed with your safety training under the premise—which should be made clear to your audience—that this is about saving lives and preventing harm, always. That’s a winning message. The training, in effect, is an act of caring.
Most people won’t find fault with that. This is about saving lives and preventing harm, always.