Rock-Star trainers: double-edged sword?

Everyone loves trainers who can captivate audiences. But there is a dark side to it.

Trainers often project a persuasive and energizing style, as a differentiating factor. Clients actively look for these attributes; and are happy when post-program feedback from learners confirms that the trainer had these attributes. But this power to hold audiences in thrall does have a dark side to it. Let us look at a few trainer-behaviors to illustrate this point.


Act 1: Three Trainers

A trainer wants her audience to believe that “When feedback isn’t a personal attack, it works”. To buttress the claim, she quotes 5 anecdotes from her personal experience, where inoffensive feedback produced results. She decides that counter-evidence (instances when the concept did NOT work) need not be presented at all. She skips talking about pre-requisites too: for instance, the concept works only when there is a significant relationship of interdependence between people giving and receiving feedback. Of course, her audience has no clue about what she chose not to speak. Suitably impressed by the coherent evidence lined up before them, learners will conclude that the concept is unassailable, all-weather, guaranteed to work. This was the persuasive trainer in action.

A learner makes a presentation during a Presentation Skills workshop. The trainer wishes to encourage the learner. So, while he comments on the presentation, he highlights the positives and downplays shortcomings. And he says “Wow! You beat my expectations”. And points out the improvement since the start of the workshop. The result: the learner gets a heightened sense of capability. All thanks to the encouraging trainer.

In another program, a trainer believes that batting practice at the nets is the first step to overcoming real life obstacles. So, he constructs a controlled, simulation in the classroom (a “sandbox”), within which learners practice their skills. Since such a sandbox is quite tame, and the trainer provides generous support and encouragement during practice, learners do well. Buoyed by this “success experience”, learners come to believe that they can replicate the same performance back at the workplace. The credit for this goes to the supportive trainer.

It is easy for trainers to leave learners 
happy and confident at the end of a workshop.
But is that always a good thing?


Act 2: Climax

Someone who has been fortunate to learn from persuasive, encouraging and supportive trainers will now believe that:

– he has an all-weather tool

– he is good at applying it

– he is battle-hardened and ready for action


Act 3: Aftermath and Crisis

Brimming with confidence, the learner dives headlong into fixing all that is wrong in his world. Of course, results don’t come easily. There are unexpected roadblocks which the sandbox-practice didn’t cover. Unlike the trainer, his peers and managers don’t seem to notice much change in him…the appreciative looks on their faces are missing. So, confidence takes a nosedive. Skepticism about training arises. Worse, the skepticism extends to concepts in general (“Theory never works in real life”), which reduce openness to all further learning. The only refuge: “good old” dysfunctional behaviors.

In our story, the trainer does a disservice to learners. He raises their expectations beyond what is feasible in their real-life contexts. This is the dark side of persuasion and energizing.

Confidence without proven skills is like a bubble.
The happiness will be short-lived.


Why do trainers do this?

The reasons for this are several. For one, it is the easy thing to do. Cherry picking examples in aid of a concept is easy. It is much harder to put forth balanced evidence, while arguing in favour of a concept. Picture this: the trainer says “In my experience, the concept works 70% of the time, but I still suggest you adopt it” and faces downcast expressions on learners’ faces!

There are some short-term gains from a pep-up kind of training. Customers say “We must end the program on a positive note”. So, the trainer makes sure that learners leave the training program on a high. Not necessarily more determined, serious or realistic; but simply happy and confident. Success is measured by the post-program “happy sheet” (so aptly named!). The happier this sheet looks, the higher the chance of repeat business.

Thirdly, buyers of training services unwittingly invite such behaviour from trainers. They would argue that program effectiveness is elusive anyway; dependent on so many factors beyond the intervention’s control. So, the best one can do is to ensure that the trainer keeps learners riveted during the workshop. And one way of ensuring this: seek out trainers high on persuasiveness and energy.

The pressure to show results within a short time also contributes to the problem. Intervention design is notoriously front-loaded. A typical intervention has a group workshop right at the start and has a rather sparse tail for implementation practise. The workshop is where all the action is supposed to be… eager learners, the top bosses making cameo appearances and expectations of transformed learners right after the workshop! It is tempting for a trainer to end the workshop with a bang, and that one way to do that is making sure that learners are happy by the last evening of the workshop.

A combination of convenience and 
pressure to show quick results 
causes trainers to take a short term view.


A way out

The most obvious way out of the problem is self-regulation by the trainer. She must ask herself, “What is a fair use of my training techniques”? Praise, anecdotes and sandboxes all are useful tools when used fairly. When a concept is abstract or complex, hence difficult to grasp, anecdotes provide a way to make it tangible, easy to understand. Some encouragement or praise prevents a learner from withering and dithering in early stages of learning. And sandboxes serve to focus a learner’s attention on the ONE skill she is trying out, rather like a first driving lesson on an empty road.


If you are a buyer of training, you can significantly impact the issue. Here are 4 concrete actions:

1. Insist on a program design which caters as much to post-training implementation, as to engagement during the training.

2. Ensure that the trainer is familiar with the real-world of learners; that will enable him to build more realistic training sandboxes.

3. Relieve the pressure on the trainer to show quick results.

4. Postpone collection of learners’ feedback to a later time when learners can judge better if training really worked for them.

If trainers self-regulate,
and buyers of training temper expectations,
the learner will benefit 
from a long-term view of development.


End piece

It all comes down to a simple question: are we focussed on short or long-term impact?

Short term thinking encourages actions which inflate the learners’ perceived sense of capability to a peak, right at the end of the workshop. But this is like a bubble about to burst.

Long term thinking keeps learners’ post-workshop challenges squarely in view. The entire intervention arranges itself around this central challenge. And it takes the form of a measured, gradual approach to changing learners’ habits and capability. It doesn’t aim at “peaks”; rather it thinks of reaching a higher, stable level of performance.


Photo credit: Jesse Darland via Unsplash