The dilemma of the modern corporate enter-trainer

One of my friends who is a corporate trainer/teacher/facilitator, wrote to me on Teacher’s Day and talked about how the nature of training/teaching has changed.

  1. Observation: attitudes of students have changed…
  2. Guru is not necessarily a brahmo or devo. As a service provider, there is no leeway or tolerance for a teacher,
  3. Teacher has to enable the student to reach their goals, without the student willing to learn.
  4. Entire paradigm or process of education is based assumption that the student wants to learn or shares some of the responsibility for their own learning. Looking at today’s folks, I get an attitude like similar to them in a theatre… “ I am here and now let us see how you entertain us, even if I don’t want to be entertained” like saying make something go into my head, inspite of me.
  5. Am finding schools that are doing everything like photocopying or emailing notes. So kids don’t write. They just have to listen/read/vomit. Where is the synthesis part, the part of education that makes students go through certain actions, rituals that have a certain impact on the mind somehow… or is there a need to rethink the ritual from the goal a bit like rethinking business because of the eBusiness paradigm?

Having been a trainer/teacher/facilitator/consultant for the past 35 years I have had the opportunity to observe the change in the environment, especially in the Indian corporate world. There was a time when the teacher was someone who was right by default. Teacher’s tolerance levels were low. Students had to accept what was told to them. Questioning the teacher was tantamount to being impertinent and disrespectful and was not acceptable. Arguing or disagreeing with the teacher was not even heard of. The archetypical model of the ‘rebellious’ student was that of Eklavya in the Mahabharat who had to pay the Gurudakshana of his right thumb to Dronacharya for daring to learn what his teacher did not intend to teach him.
Today we see a total change with the proverbial boot on the foot of the student. Trainers eat or starve depending on the fickle likes and dislikes of students. Teachers are judged not on the basis of what the students learned, realized or felt able to practice in their lives, but on the basis of whether or not they ‘liked’ the teacher. Giving critical feedback to the student (many of whom incidentally as my friend says do not even consider themselves in need of learning nor are they even called ‘student’) is an activity fraught with danger. The danger that the fragile ego of the student may get bruised in the process and his lovely self-image of being God’s gift to mankind may be shaken and he may be displeased. Being ‘liked’ by students seems to be the single most important consideration.

This means that the price of giving some well deserved adverse feedback or of challenging some pet position of a student can mean that on the Trainer Dashboard the trainer’s rating may go down by one or two sub-points from 9.8 to 9.3 which translates very simply to kissing that client goodbye. In some cases of course the HR professional who handles training is also a trainer and understands the complexity of the job. They sit in the training class and know the style of the trainer. They also know the profile of the students well enough to know what must have led to the feedback. They are focused on what is good for the organization which is why the training was being done in the first place. So they simply ignore the feedback and a trainer who has the commitment to say what the students need to hear and not what they like to hear, retains his job. 

On rare occasions s/he is even appreciated and thanked for saying to the student what everyone else was dying to say but dared not. On the other hand when the HR professional either has no training experience themselves or if their personal anxiety is so high that they are totally focused on the training being ‘liked’ and the students having ‘fun’, then you have the scenario that I presented above. In such situations ‘intelligent’ trainers become ‘entertainers’ to ensure that they continue to eat and leave the fate of the student to himself. One can hardly blame them for focusing on being liked, when being liked is more important and gets rewarded more than being useful.
Truly it has been said that we get what we pay for. When we focus on fun, we get ‘funny’ trainers. People have fun and may learn something in the same way that if you throw seeds on the ground some will germinate irrespective of all conditions. But if you had taken the trouble to prepare the ground first by ploughing, harrowing, irrigating and manuring and then you carefully planted the seeds, a far higher percentage would germinate and more importantly, grow and bear fruit. So also if an atmosphere of serious learning (which can still be great fun) is created, with students wanting to learn, believing that they can benefit, be willing to invest their time and thought in learning and be willing to listen to feedback, then the benefits of learning would be far higher. Naturally in such a case what the organization would need to measure is the size of the harvest – what did the students learn and what are they able to apply. Not whether or not they liked the trainer per se.
Now having said that, and being aware that what I have described above is not what happens in most organizations and probably is not likely to happen, what is it that the trainer can still do both to ensure that he continues to eat as well as not compromise his own integrity as a teacher by withholding knowledge, feedback or experience in order to ensure that he continues to have work? In my own life I have always held my own integrity as a teacher above all other considerations, including future business. I have said what students needed to hear even if it was what they did not want to hear. In two cases I lost business on that account, but I have no regrets about that. In every other case in 35 years, people have come back to me time and again and thanked me for putting them back on track when they had gone off and nobody else had the courage to ‘tell it like it is’. In this process of doing what is essentially a very challenging and complex job I developed some techniques which I will try to share with my fellow professionals in the hope that they will find them useful. I call them my 7-Point Formula.
1.  Today I will teach like I’ve never taught before
I have said this before and I will say it again: NEVER compromise your own integrity as a teacher. When you enter that room, the only responsibility that you have is to your students. Not to their company. Not to the HR or Business Manager who hired you. Not to your own family or yourself. Your first and only responsibility is to the students and that is to ensure that they get the best that you can possibly give them without any compromise. So as a trainer/teacher I tell myself: TODAY I WILL TEACH LIKE I’VE NEVER TAUGHT BEFORE. I am a religious person and so before I go to my class, I pray for the class. I ask Allah to enable me to do my best and to give them the very best of what I know and to enable them to benefit from it.

2.  Own your responsibility: Don’t blame the student if he does not like what you tell him. I ask myself, “How could I have put it differently so that he would have accepted it more easily, even if he still did not ‘like’ it?” After all, my effort in this direction can only do me good by helping me develop my own skill. Blaming the student will achieve no purpose at all, either for myself or for the student. Now how can you do that?

The first requirement is to ask yourself why you want to say what you plan to say. Is it to ‘get back at’ or to ‘retaliate’? Or is it because you are genuinely concerned for the student? Granted that it is very difficult to be ‘genuinely concerned’ about some obnoxious stranger but if you are not, it shows. Just as it does when you are. I am always amazed at how much I can get away with if I have ‘passed’ my own test of genuinely caring for the student, first.

One of the ways to help people swallow bitter pills is to ask good questions that lead the student to the only possible option. Let them conclude. Don’t tell. But in the end, even if you lose the contract, say what you need to say without fear. Because your integrity is worth more than the fee.

3.  The third thing that I remind myself is to be patient. Ideally I would like the student who has just received some ‘straight talk’ from me to become transformed and fall at my feet in gratitude for having changed his life. But that is as likely to happen as it is for the cow to jump over the moon. So we need to be patient. I remind myself that an egg needs 21 days to hatch into a chick. Jacking up the temperature will cook the egg and put paid to all hopes of the egg ever transforming into a chicken. “Hang on!! Old egg,” I tell myself.

4.  I ask myself, “How can I become more ‘liked’ without compromising my integrity as a teacher by withholding knowledge, feedback or insights? After all what is wrong with being liked?” It helps me to remember this especially when I have to give anyone critical feedback. What I do if it is feedback concerning one individual is to give it privately and not in the class. I do it with seriousness, concern for his/her feelings, but I do it directly without beating about the bush. I never give that critical feedback concerning one person as a general comment before the whole class. For example if there is someone who is vitiating the learning of other people by too much of misplaced humor, I don’t say, “I think it is a good idea to be serious,” or some such thing. I NEVER USE SARCASM. I wait for a break and then take the individual aside and say to her/him, “You know, I love your humor but I find it seems to be giving others an escape route not to look at uncomfortable things about themselves. I know that is not your intention in laughing, so do you think you could watch for that and ensure that people get to look at insights seriously?” I say this with a smile because it is my experience that if you say it with a smile you can say almost anything and get away with it.

5.  I remind myself that the student who can instigate people and distract them while I am teaching has just demonstrated amazing leadership qualities. My challenge is not to put them down but to ensure that those leadership qualities are channeled in the right direction. So I treat such people as potential allies and ‘co-trainers’. I have never had an instance of this confidence being misplaced.

6.  People pay attention to things that they think will benefit them. So how can I show ‘What’s in it for them’ to my students by giving them a glimpse of what I can do for them, if they allow me to? How can I give them a sampling of my knowledge and experience in the context of their needs? How can I show them that I know enough about them, their lives, their culture, organization, circumstances, challenges and aspirations to be able to give them implementable solutions that will help them to succeed? How can I demonstrate to them that they are the most important people for me and that there is nothing within reason that I will not do to ensure that they have a beneficial, enjoyable and memorable experience? Especially since that is the truth.

7.  When I start my class I ensure that I greet each individual personally and then I do my best to remember their names. This is easier than you may think and has a huge effect on people and shows respect for the individual and is the best way that I know to build a rapport very quickly. Show me someone who does not want to be respected.

I also try to speak to students in their language. Since I speak 5 languages, that’s fairly easy to do. It is not necessary to speak at great length in their language. A few words do very well to break the ice and to establish a connection and a level of comfort.

I then draw attention to the fact that the student needs to invest time, energy and effort in their own learning. And I do that humorously. 

For example I say to them:

“There are three kinds of people who come to a training class:
Prisoners:      Who have been sent (sentenced) to the training.
Tourists:        Who come because the location is reputed to be good.
Learners:       Who come because they genuinely believe that they need to learn.

My submission to you is that whatever be the reason you came, it is a good idea to become a learner as quickly as possible. Believe me that will not spoil the location or the taste of the food and it will release you from your ‘prison’.”

Listen is not equal to obey: It is very curious that in most languages (certainly true for the ones that I know) listen means ‘to obey’. For example parents are heard to lament about their children: ‘My children don’t listen to me.’ But the truth is that if you gave all the kids hearing aids, it would still not solve the parent’s problem because it has nothing to do with listening but everything to do with obeying. So I say to my class, “There is no compulsion on anyone to accept or obey anything that I say.

Or anything that any of your colleagues say. In this class, listen means to listen only. Do you think you can listen to whatever someone says, consider it, hold it in your mind, play with it, ask questions to clarify any doubts, before deciding if it is applicable, useful or interesting for you? God gave us two ears so that we can take in all inputs from one and let them out from the other. But he placed them on either side of the head so that the input goes through the brain before it is allowed to leave through the other ear. Do you think you can practice this for the duration of this program?”
The benefit of this approach is that it lowers barriers and breaks the ice. When you draw attention of people to the fact that many of us react defensively because we are conditioned to believe that listen = obey and so fear that unless we interrupt the speaker or react defensively it will be assumed that we have accepted what he/she has said. When you clarify this behavioral process and show people the alternative of making the communication a ‘batch’ process instead of being the default ‘real time on-line’ process that it usually is, then resistance to new ideas becomes significantly lower.

I give people the example of the motor mechanic (or any mechanic for that matter) and his toolbox. I ask them, “Who is a better equipped mechanic? One who has many tools or one who has only one?” Then I say to them, “If you asked a mechanic about the tools in his toolbox it is entirely likely that he would have one or more tools which he would not have used in a long time. Imagine that you said to him, ‘Since you haven’t used this wrench for such a long time, why don’t you just throw it away?’ What do you think the mechanic would say? In the same way, consider all learning as tools and keep it in your toolbox. You never know when you might need it. Variety gives you flexibility and options. On the other hand as the saying goes – If the only thing you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail.”

Finally I draw attention of my students to the issue of applying their learnings. For me that is the most important consideration and I do everything in my power to ensure that whatever I teach is applicable in real life. I do my best to help my students to find practical solutions to their problems and do all I can to encourage them to feel comfortable to apply whatever they learn from me. This is where my own 16 years hands-on experience as a line manager helps enormously. I am able to give work-life related examples of challenging situations that I have been in and how what they just learned can be applied.

I use this diagram to alert them to the fact that most learning means changing behavior and that is not easy or painless. Depending on how drastic the change is, the pain of trying the new method is proportionate. Most people don’t anticipate this difficulty and when they encounter suspicion, resistance or disbelief from those who have become used to the old behavior, they tend to give up the new way after a while. So the potential benefit of the change is never realized.
It is a very good idea therefore to be prepared for two things:

1.  Practicing the new behavior is not likely to be easy and may cramp your style for a while and make you slower and less efficient in the short term.

2.  Others are likely to see your new behavior as being ‘put on’ and to view it with a mixture of suspicion, distrust and amusement. Especially if the new way is a drastic departure from the old way.
However what is equally true is that if the new way is practiced consistently and sincerely, then people start to trust the new ‘You’ and to enjoy the change. Then you will start getting some positive strokes which will reinforce the new methods. Behavioral change is possible and enjoyable, but it takes a little time.
In conclusion I would like to wish all my colleagues the very best in their efforts to make this world a better place. Believe me; the results justify the effort and energy that it sometimes takes. I teach not because I have no choice but because I do and I would rather not be doing anything else including fishing or golfing. Because in the end, if you have worked sincerely, with professional integrity, sensitivity and awareness and have tried to do the best that you could have done; then you will be the biggest beneficiary. Now why would I want to do anything else?
Finally it is good for all concerned, teacher and pupils to remember these words of ancient wisdom from the Smruthies:
Achaaryaath paadam aadatthe; 
paadam sishya swamedhayaa; 
paadam sa brahmachaaribhya; 
sesham kaala kramena cha
A person can get only one quarter of knowledge from the Achaarya – the teacher, another quarter by analyzing himself, one quarter by discussing with others and the last quarter during the process of living by method: addition, deletion, correction, and modification of already known aachaaraas.