What We’ve Got Here is a Failure to Communicate

Someone stands in front of the only working exit on a crowded city bus. They then start a chainsaw. Three thoughts quickly rush through the mind. 1) Oh, look, a chainsaw. 2) Wait, a chainsaw? 3) Um, this is my stop.

The person with the chainsaw could read the entire 8th season of Game of Thrones aloud and odds are no one would pay attention to what they were saying. On the off-chance the audience did hear that Bronn and Brienne end up ruling Westeros, it’s even less likely that tasty plot twist will be the “lede” when they share the story of this bus trip. Maslow* said it best: A sense of danger overrides all other communication. When people are scared, they aren’t listening to learn. They are listening to leave.

If we want to grab attention and make lasting changes in employee performance, we must abandon shortcuts like fear or intimidation. Our clients and organizations will only survive if we create a safe environment for growth.

The beatings will continue

Cultures of fear and intimidation are the foundations of short-term thinking. People will act out of fear, no doubt. Upper management types who wield a joss of income, title or employment to “motivate” teams have found quick results in the moment. In learning and development circles, this attitude manifests with a frustration that learning objectives didn’t “stick” long term. We threaten people to attend a session or use an LMS. “This is now a part of your job! You better learn it.” Regardless of how great the course design, productive long-term outcomes rarely arise out of scared employees trying to memorize content just to say they did it.

Cat on the Table
Oh, you meant “All the time?”

I remember when I bought my first cat home from the rescue sanctuary. I had never owned a pet before and went online to see how to train her not to jump on the tables and counters. The advice I found was to get a water sprayer and squirt her whenever she jumped on the table (I’ve since discovered this is a poor way to teach a cat anything and it’s unnecessarily cruel to the cat). So that’s what I did. For a few days, whenever she jumped on my kitchen table, I spritzed her with my ever-present water bottle. And it worked! I was amazed at how quickly this negative reinforcement changed her behavior. That is until I spilled some flour on my floor one night and forgot to clean all of it up. The next day, I saw perfectly formed and arrogantly placed white paw prints all over my table. The only thing I taught her was not to jump on the table when I was home. Well played, cat.

When an organization communicates using fear and intimidation, long-term learning and development are difficult, if not impossible

Communication in top organizations

I pray organizations are careful not to take the water bottle approach to learning and development. It’s easy to fall into that trap, because managers may see immediate results while they are present. For example, in a team meeting when sales reps are asked to complete an LMS course. Under duress, their teams will access the content and complete the knowledge quiz. Two weeks later, after the immediate bullied effect wears off, attendees step into flour and old patterns of behavior emerge.

When an organization communicates using fear and intimidation, long-term learning and development are difficult, if not impossible. Instead, let the benefits of performance improvement drive the conversation. Replace ultimatums with opportunities. This takes a little more work upfront, yet yields much greater, and longer lasting results. Some examples:

“You will be fired!” changes to “You will be able to accomplish…”

“You must go to this session.” or “This training is mandatory.” moves to “This session is required for our team because…”

How we communicate the value of learning and professional development is a crucial component of long-term success. Scaring and threatening people have no place in a productive culture.

What do you think? How would you know when it is time to change course? What’s your process? Leave a comment below and have a chance to win our monthly giveaway.

*Not a direct quote

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