Require lots of training? “Doesn’t make sense.”

Today’s New York Times business section included Adam Bryant’s Corner Office interview with Karen May, vice president for people development at Google. The interview is short (the feature takes up a bit less than half a page), but well-focused, particularly on two topics: training and feedback.

Asked about common mistakes she’s seen with regard to training programs for employees, May says:

One thing that doesn’t make sense is to require a lot of training… If people opt in, versus being required to go, you’re more likely to have better outcomes.

Well, there goes the whole compliance-training industry, and a good percentage of elearning producers with them.

Yes, May seems to have in mind training-as-an-event, but I think that was implicit in the question. She’s clearly not an idealist:

Another “don’t” would be thinking that because some training content is interesting, everyone should therefore go to it.

I don’t know whether the other bigwigs at Google listen to her (I suspect, without evidence, that the proportion of formal training there is on the low side), but I can think of a few elsewhere who’d benefit from heeding this. How many large organizations plunge into some flavor of the month because of what was said on the golf course to the vice-president in change of things beginning with R?

Kay segues from training to feedback by talking about performance.  “Don’t use training to fix performance problems,” she says. I’ve said something similar (not that I’m a vice president for people development), though what she’s referring to is problems of individual performance.

In her view, managers will sometimes send a person to training if that person isn’t performing well.

I agree that’s generally a dumb idea–when the cause isn’t a skill deficit, and especially when no one’s looked for evidence of the cause.

May discusses the difficulty people have in giving candid feedback–especially “difficult feedback,” which I take to mean feedback intended to help change current behavior.  There’s the potential for great value in frank feedback, of course, and she believes it’s often realized:

People can do something with the feedback probably 70 percent of the time. And for the other 30 percent, they are either not willing to take it in, it doesn’t fit their self-image, they’re too resistant, in denial, or they don’t have the wherewithal to change.

(I do think she’s left out the possibility that the person giving the feedback is mistaken. That’s not necessarily a common situation, but it’s hell on the person who’s on the receiving end, because attempts to correct a misimpression can easily be seen as unwillingness, resistance, denial, what have you.)

May does say that many of the executives she’s coached needed help “in relationships with others, and understanding the impact they have on the people around them.”  Of the need for empathy, listening, and so on, she says, “It wasn’t usually from a lack of willingness to do those things, but they didn’t have a strong muscle.”