6 tips for engaging people who are cynical negative and disgruntled in learning

7 July 2016

“Our staff will never engage in this, it’s a waste of time”

This is (pretty much) what several of the managers and senior staff from a major service organisation said to us recently as we prepared to launch a major customer service programme working with front line staff in London. This particular project brings added challenge in that the participants on the programme work for several different companies, under the umbrella of one organisation. Most of them don’t identify with the umbrella organisation; in fact many are openly wary of it and hostile towards it. The majority come into the room not understanding why they are there and not wanting to be there.

So, having now run this programme for a month we are creating high levels of engagement with positive comments outweighing negative by 10 to 1, and many delegates saying things like ‘I came here thinking this would be rubbish, but it’s the best training we’ve ever had’. Now I’m not going to pretend that we haven’t had bumps along the way – there are some delegates who remain negative but they are a small minority and we have learnt some valuable lessons about how to best engage these very honest, opinionated, proud and hard-working people:

1. Recognise and reflect their reality – via a variety of methods (vox pop videos, stats, drama scenarios, quiz questions) we ‘hold up a mirror’ and reflect the real pressures of their world and their job. This is crucial – it allows delegates to see that we understand their world, that we can see the issues from their viewpoint. But it also enables them to see the issues from the customers’ viewpoint.

2. Treat them as adults – the tone of the session needs to be one of asking (not telling), pulling (not pushing) learning, allowing them space to voice their opinions and to surface their concerns, gripes, frustrations. If these things don’t get voiced early then there is no way that people will be open to learning and to behaviour change. These discussions have to be well facilitated – there is a risk of it turning into a ‘whinge’ session – so we focus on what delegates can do, what they can own in terms of change and improvements. If they have issues with processes or operational systems we encourage them to capture these on a ‘suggestions wall’ to be fed through to their managers/umbrella organisation. We are ensuring that actions/responses to these suggestions are communicated back to delegates.

3. Be on their agenda – people are much more likely to be engaged if they can see what’s in it for them, so we repeatedly emphasise the benefits of this learning for them, how it will help them to do their job. This is a fine line to tread – we do of course have to get some key learning messages/objectives across – improvements to the service are needed and this means some changes to their actions and behaviours. It would be easy to allow them to put the ‘blame’ on everyone else (customers, managers, the company etc) – so we also keep coming back to the customers’ viewpoint, using an exercise to ‘put them in the customer’s shoes’, to realise that we are all customers (including their own family and friends) and that everyone likes to be kept informed and treated in a ‘human’ way. This enables them to own the changes that they need to make.

4. Keep it practical – we avoid theories and focus on real tangible things that they can do to provide better service to customers. Our mantra is practise, practise, practise! In a safe and supportive environment we enable delegates to explore and practise different behaviours, different approaches. Having people from different companies in the room results in great ideas being shared. Delegates learn from one another and develop insight into simple things that they can change to improve the way that customers experience the service.

5. Acknowledge it’s not just them. There are things that the delegates can and need to do differently. But this is not about pointing the finger of blame, and they cannot do this alone. They need to be supported and empowered by their managers and their organisations. We make it clear what they should expect (and demand) of their managers and colleagues – we share what is already being done, the commitments that have been made, whilst acknowledging that there is still a long way to go – this is a journey of change and they need to work together to make it live in the real world.

6. Make it fun! This is a serious topic… but learning happens best when people are having fun.

One Senior Director who attended this week now has a different view to the managers who voiced scepticism prior to the course:

‘It’s earthy and real-life – not corporate fluff. Really engaged delegates who are obviously (and rightly) deeply proud of what they do. Facilitators really showed that they know what the reality is, sparking really lively debate. Openness all round to deliver better service. I think this will make a real difference.’

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