Prepare to meet your trainer

Adrian Furnham offers a guide to the syndromes you may encounter in the world of HR courses

August 27, 2009

Gone are those glorious days when academics revelled in their sensible amateurism. It was widely assumed that once someone was made head of department, or dean, or some even more elevated position, he or she would "pick up" the necessary skills of leadership and management. The concept of management used to be entirely foreign to British academics, who resisted introducing business schools until the 1960s.

The academic belief was that any good chap basically knew what to do and how to lead the troops. It was that Chariots of Fire philosophy, where you came home from work, put on your plimsolls, had a Marmite sandwich and then popped down to the Olympic stadium to win the 100 metres. Practice was seen as somewhere between vulgar and cheating.

Thus, having key performance indicators, annual appraisals and peer reviews seemed utterly meaningless and pointless to many a don who was content with getting on with the jobs of teaching and research.

But those innocent times are long gone, and for a decade now old dons have been whipped into line, learning the jargon of HR. Indeed, many find they must now attend training courses on such things as how to interview or counsel students, how to create PowerPoint presentations with impact, or even how to chat to their local reporter.

They are, therefore, increasingly exposed to an odd group called trainers. Of course scholars are used to colloquia, conferences and the like, where academic presentations are made, and they all understand the game: all that point-scoring and crypto-humility innuendo. But trainers and training are different. They tend to run short, skills-based courses. Training is meant to be practical, to yield results, to be relevant.

Moreover, trainers come in many guises, from the evangelical game show host to the belittling assassin. Some seem dependent on dreary manuals, while others think training is somewhere between Blue Peter and The X-Factor. People sort of "drift into" training. Their backgrounds are often as varied as their styles, philosophy and practice. Some seem like (failed but aspirant) actors; others disillusioned teachers. Many have a history of being made redundant. The costs to entry are relatively low; qualifications seem optional, so it's a competitive business. Lots get sacked in the bad times; training, like advertising, is one of the first areas to get the chop.

As a result, there are some very trainer-specific illnesses and problems. Consider the following semi-psychiatric conditions:

Chronic Evaluation Anxiety: This is caused by the end-of-course "happy sheets" really counting. Good scores mean re-employment; bad scores mean "thank you, but don't call us". Some trainers try to fiddle the books by designing the feedback sheet themselves, delivering it at a particularly high point in the proceedings, or quite simply pleading with the delegates.

Intermittent Entertainment Confusion: This is caused by not being sure to what extent one is a trainer or an entertainer. Course satisfaction seems to go up with funny anecdotes, amusing videos and non-taxing games. It goes down with tough assignments, end-of-course exams and the trainer evaluating participants rather than the other way around. The pressure is on to be funny, light and easygoing.

Periodic Gadget Fetish: This is the false belief that delegates will be impressed by all sorts of old gizmos that can be used in training - quirky electronic goods are the best. Playing whale music, using subtly changing lights or introducing aromatherapy-approved scents is the wacky, less-electronic version of this fetish.

Naive Luncheon Compensation Belief: All trainers know the value of a good lunch. Free food, good mood, happy campers. However, good lunches cost money. They can't be predicted, caterers can be slow, vegetarians can be forgotten.

Adolescent Manual Disorder: This is the paint-by-numbers, stick-to-the-manual approach. It is the peculiar belief that manuals are like instruction lists that have to be followed logically and rigorously. It means the training is a dreary tramp through a tedious manual that pre- and proscribes everything. Of course some lecturers love it.

Obsessive PowerPoint Dependency: This is akin to gadget fetish and is the belief that arty-farty, eye-catching, cartoon-facilitated PowerPoint slides are just the ticket. It is the peculiar belief that passive slide watching has something to do with education or training.

Bipolar Role Play Exhibitionism: A speciality of am-dram or television producer types who encourage reluctant delegates to play outrageous parts while being filmed by a cheap video recorder. Sometimes trainers like to take part by doing the role play themselves. This is the most feared issue with introverted, unemotionally expressive, serious-minded dons.

Room Layout Fetish: A faddish environmental determinist notion that the way tables and chairs are placed has an important effect on how the course goes. So there is cabaret with round tables to encourage interaction and a horseshoe shape for trainer-led discussion. Training rooms don't look like lecture theatres: they are not in the same business.

Report Back Poster Dependency: This is the idea that delegates can and should do all the work themselves by sitting around in break-out rooms filling flip-charts with inane drivel that they then feed back to the other groups. The idea is that a course is really successful only if the whole room's walls are covered by these amateur posters.

Psychobabble Test Fixation: This is a cheap time-waster that appeals to the self-absorbed narcissist. Make them do a test, keep them in suspense and feed back the results slowly, with great earnestness. Generally accompanied by a raft of daft, time-wasting exercises.

Habitual Handout Impulse: This idea is to drip-feed material with a series of handouts. It creates a rhythm and delegates seem to value it more than getting the whole thing at once. Better still if handouts have to be processed before fitting into a folder.

Warm-Up Exercise Mania: This may be a protracted bout of going around the room, with participants either disclosing personal trivia or talking up one's job and company. On the other hand, it may involve prep-school social games that hover on the edge of being litigation-worthy.

Recognising any of these syndromes and understanding their underlying problems should be of enormous value to the bored academic on a training course. The desire to critique the "theory", materials, cost, purpose and outcome of the course must, however, be resisted at all costs. It never does anybody any good to carp: the content usually lies outside the academic discipline; your department/college is paying and they want to believe it is a good thing. Rather, suspend your disbelief (about the cost of attendance, certainly) and spend the time profitably analysing the obsessions and presentational tics of your trainer. In this way you will understand each other better, your sponsor will be happy that you have not been making waves, and you may even learn a few nuggets that could come in handy if your final salary pension really is taken away.

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