What do you do when a trainee won’t learn?

Photo of stressed-out woman in an office settingYou’ve been training a new employee. And they’re stuck.

They can’t seem to pick up the details, they can’t absorb the next step, they can’t “get it right,” they’re clearly stressed and unhappy – and so are you!

You’ve tried everything you know how to do. Speaking privately with them. Role-playing. Asking questions to find out what they do understand – and why they don’t get it. Coaching from co-workers. And so on…and on.

What can you do to get them back on track? Or is it hopeless and they’re just the wrong person for the job?

Sometimes it’s true…

Sometimes they are the wrong person for the job.

Maybe they’re not a fit for the company culture. Or they might be uncomfortable with a particular aspect of the work.

One client hired someone who seemed ideal for a technical sales job – until he realized this person was deeply uncomfortable with selling.

(Oops. That was an error in the hiring process, in which, I’m embarrassed to say, I participated and missed asking a key question. Lesson learned: never ever skip key interview questions!)

But if there’s no obvious reason for their struggle, here’s a counter-intuitive tactic you might try.

Counter-intuitively …

Offer generous praise for what they’re doing right.

You’re both so focused on all that’s going wrong that you’re overlooking the things being done well. And there’s always something.

Even the non-sales-oriented employee I mentioned did a lot of things right, though in the end they couldn’t get past the “must sell stuff” aspect of the job. (They’ve moved on to an office manager role at another company where their superpower-level organizational skills are prized and rewarded – no sales required!)

What are they doing right? Notice it in the moment – and/or after the fact. Be explicit. It’s not just “good job!”, it’s “Hey, you really did x, y, and z very well! thank you!” (For more on this, see my article “Why Thank You Isn’t Enough.”)

Better yet, find multiple things they’re doing right.

Why does this work?

A rising tide floats all boats

You’ve heard that saying: “a rising tide floats all boats.”

It works for confidence as well as water.

When someone’s struggling to learn key job requirements, their anxiety and stress go through the roof and their confidence sinks into the sub-sub-basement.

Stress and lack of confidence create uncertainty and brain freeze, making the struggle to learn – and retain what’s learned – even more difficult.

Boost their confidence in areas where they’re legitimately doing well, and the stress eases, the uncertainty diminishes, and they almost miraculously begin doing better in all areas.

Not always, but mostly

It doesn’t always work. If, as in the example of the “selling-is-bad” employee, there’s a deeply-held personal belief system or value that conflicts with the job requirement, it won’t help. In that situation, confidence isn’t the issue; the value structure is the issue, and we’re all entitled to honor our own values.

But when the employee genuinely wants to learn and is sincerely trying (meaning, there are no value or belief structures in the way), then boosting confidence in one area will almost certainly boost performance across the board.

Try it. See what happens. And let me know!

gljudson Leadership