When Training Doesn’t Help

Good process analysts need lots of different skills.  One set of skills they need relate to human performance analysis.  As one looks at deficient business processes one often encounters problems resulting for poor human performance.  The employees aren’t doing what management wants them to do.  To improve the process, in these cases, you need to change human performance.

Faced with deficient employee performance, there are really two options.  You can seek to change the knowledge and skills of the employees or you can attempt to change their motivation.  If this doesn’t seem obvious to readers, it probably means you haven’t studied some of the key works in human performance analysis.  (I usually recommend that readers who feel undertain about this explore www.ispi.org — a professional organization that has focused on these issues for decades.)

For those who seek to change the skill or knowledge of employees, training is usually the first option.  For those who seek to change the motivation of employees, arranging reinforcement or contingencies for employee behavior is usually the best bet.

Tom Gilbert, a leading guru in human performance management used to suggest this test.  “You conduct a thought experiment.  You imagine that you put a gun to the employee’s head and tell them that you are going to kill them if they don’t manage to do the desired task.  If they would somehow manage to get the task done, then you have a motivation problem.  If they couldn’t do the task, even threatened with death, then you have a skill/knowledge problem.”

I mention all this because the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) has just released a report on sexual harrassment in the workplace and concluded that 30 years of training has had no effect on sexual harassment. For details, see:


EEOC Commissioner Victoria Lipnic said that the report was “a jaw-dropping moment for us.”  All Commissioner Lipnic’s comment illustrates is that she hasn’t studied the human performance improvement literature.

Consider Gilbert’s test.  Do you imagine that many employees don’t know that its wrong to harass other employees?  Do you imagine they lack the skills to avoid doing it?  Harassment isn’t a skill/knowledge problem.  It’s a motivation problem.  It’s a problem that requires a clear set of guidelines that are widely perceived to be rigorously enforced.  Employees need to know there is a system in place — that harassed employees know how to respond and report and that management is committed to responding quickly and effectively.

Too many managers think training is an all purpose solution to employee problems.  Sometimes training is required.  If employees really don’t know how to respond, they need an opportunity to learn and practice new skills.  If they know, however, then motivation is the more important factor.  Business managers and process analysts should clearly understand this distinction.




  1. Good article Paul. I’ve observed that very lack of human performance understanding many times in different organisations, in different functional silos, and at different levels of the hierarchy. Often this lack of understanding manifests as a “training is the solution to all problems” response as you illustrated well with the example of workplace harassment. I’ve also seen it the other way around – where process issues are blamed on motivation. Accusations are cast at employees as being lazy, careless or even malicious when in fact the root causes relate to poor or non-existent training, inadequate systems or aids, unreasonable workloads etc. These are factors for which the leadership must shoulder the burden of responsibility to understand and address – rather than putting the process worker on a “performance management” regime.

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