Training Can’t Fix Everything — It’s Not a Substitute for Manager Feedback

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how fantastically designed our learning solutions are because training alone won’t address the root cause of a problem. 

Training can only solve for problems that specifically relate to a lack of skills or knowledge. In his book Performance Basics, author Joe Willmore estimates that this only accounts for 10% to 15% of organizational challenges. The rest of the time, a different solution is needed.

But by the time stakeholders come to you with a request, they have often convinced themselves that training is the solution they need. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

So, we still get requests for which we don’t have the answers. Our stakeholders are stressed. They either don’t have time to figure out the real problem, they are too close to see it, or they don’t believe they have time to address it.

But whenever we provide a training solution that doesn’t solve the problem, we essentially waste everyone’s time and resources. A learning or training solution can address a gap in skills or knowledge but it cannot fix inefficient processes or misaligned rewards systems. It also cannot make up for a manager who fails to provide feedback.

Yes, we can help managers learn how to provide effective feedback and coaching for their team members. But no amount of even the most awesome training for their team members can make up for a manager who does not do this work. 

Training isn’t a substitute for manager feedback.

Example No. 1: An ill-suited request from the CFO

One day, the learning manager on my team received a request from the CFO to retrain his team on how to lock their computers when they stepped away from their desks. 

A company security policy stated that whenever an employee stepped away from their desk, they were to lock their computer, an action that then required a new login to view their screen or access information. 

The CFO had walked past a team member’s office and noted the computer wasn’t locked. Anyone could have easily accessed company finance information with only a few clicks and keystrokes. Instead of talking with this team member individually, the CFO called the learning manager and requested that she deliver additional training on the policy for his entire team.

Spoiler alert: The learning manager didn’t provide the training.

But she did talk with the CFO, asking him to start by providing feedback to this employee individually. She explained the cost to create and deliver training for his entire team would be much more than a quick conversation. When put in financial terms, the CFO understood that what he had asked for wasn’t reasonable. 

The learning manager was able to circumvent the request and quickly provide an alternative. But that isn’t always the case.

Example No. 2: Training as a substitute for feedback and one-on-one coaching

Todd was an employee who had trouble crafting professional emails to customers and colleagues. Instead of working individually with Todd to improve his email communication skills or even reaching out to ask for assistance from HR or the learning team, Todd’s manager simply enrolled him in the next day’s email communication class for new employees. 

The enrollment was his feedback and Todd got the message loud and clear.

Todd had been with the company for many years and was not a new employee. Yet the learning management system now required him to attend the new employee class. 

He showed up to the class mad (and maybe embarrassed). For him, it was like he graduated from high school and then was told, “You missed a few things so we’re sending you back to first grade.” Throughout the class Todd muttered sarcastic comments under his breath, making it clear to everyone else that he thought the class was stupid and didn’t want to be there. He refused to participate in any of the activities unless it was to make them into a joke. Todd didn’t learn anything new and he poisoned the entire class with his crummy attitude.

The learning manager would have loved to talk with Todd’s manager ahead of time, but the late enrollment didn’t allow for that. After the class, the learning manager did reach out to Todd’s manager to let them know what had happened. They also graciously offered to help Todd’s manager provide better feedback and coaching up front.

Final thoughts

We can’t fix a lack of manager feedback with training. We can, however, equip managers to coach their employees, and we can have conversations about the efficiency and effectiveness of feedback and coaching versus a programmed training solution. The presence of effective feedback is an important element to consider when searching for the root cause of the problem that led to the training request in the first place.

This post was originally published in the L&D Must Change newsletter on LinkedIn.

Jess Almlie is a learning and performance strategist with over 25 years of experience across multiple industries. In that time, she has worked in all the people development roles, from her very first job as a trainer at McDonald’s to vice president of learning experience at WEX Benefits. Now, as an independent consultant, she helps L&D leaders and teams shift their approach to work more strategically, intentionally, and impactfully.