How to Train Reluctant First Level Supervisors

I recently asked readers to submit their burning leadership development questions. Those that get picked for a post will receive a free copy of my eBook.

This question from a Talent Management Vice President,
who chose to remain anonymous:

“Our org is committed
to providing development activities to a first level supervisor population that
has limited cognitive ability, little formal education, and generally lacks
motivation to learn in the workplace.  What recommendations do you have
around design, delivery, and the transfer environment?

Where I am at Now:
As I think through
the situation, I keep on landing around strong change management (to get
learners committed to the program, and not compliant) and effective
accountability/performance management associated with the results the
leadership development is expected to support.  I’m hoping the larger
audience can offer additional ideas and perspectives.”

Hmmm…, this is one of those questions that just begs for
more information in order to answer it.

I’m also trying my best to not judge the reader – but I
have to admit, when I first read the question, phrases like “limited cognitive
ability” and “lacks motivation to learn in the workplace” kind off turned me
off – it came across as a bit snobby, and stereotypes an entire workforce. Or
maybe I’m just being defensive, because it sounds like he’s describing me on a
bad Monday. (-:

However, let’s give the reader the benefit of the doubt –
I’m quite sure he has good intentions, knows his stuff (I peeked at his
LinkedIn profile, he indeed does), and let’s assume his assessment is factual.
Actually, I think I really do know where he’s coming from.

I’ve had some tough
training audiences
over the years, from all kinds of industries
and professions, including the kind of target audience I believe the reader is
describing. They all come with potential challenges – from the highest ranking
executives who lack motivation to learn due to their own success and egos, to
the front line foreman who works outside all day and would rather get a root
canal than sit in a classroom all day being reminded of bad memories from

So what’s the key? I think it comes down to the following
basic training principles would apply across the spectrum of learners:

Needs assessment.

I truly believe that everyone
will be motivated to learn if the content is going to make their lives better
in some way. If the target audience is, for example, cable installer supervisors,
then I’d suggest that whoever is designing the training to remove the tie and
go out and spend 2-3 days riding along, doing interviews and observations with
a few cable installer supervisors. Talk to their employees, their bosses, and
find out everything you can about their world of work. What are their
challenges? What are the pain points? What are they grumbling about the most?
What are their hopes?

Design training (knowledge and skills) that is highly
relevant to the needs of your target audience. Test it – go back to the same
people you learned from and test what you’ve come up with. “Hey, Larry, would it help you meet those installation targets if we
could show you how to deal with that slacker installer you told me about and
gave you some short-cuts for filling out all of that damn paperwork that the
office requires? It would? Well here, take a look at this. What do you think?
Would it work? Would it help you and other supervisors?”
Talk to some of
the top performing supervisors too, some of the informal leaders, to validate
what you’ve come up. The key is that it has to be real.


Develop training that is not only relevant, but engaging,
highly interactive, fun, with opportunity to practice. I wouldn’t recommend
online, job aids, etc… the group described by the reader learns best in an
informal social setting. Limit the pre-reading and in-class reading – make it
verbal, visual, with lots of discussion, exercises, application, and more
discussion. This group will have zero patience for “nice to know”- they will
want to know how they can use it back on the job tomorrow.

I would throw a personality assessment, like MBTI or
DISC, in there somewhere too. It’s an engaging way for people to understand
themselves and the behavior of others.

I think a half day is perfect – no more than that,
delivered in weekly sessions, in a familiar environment. The weekly format
allows time for practice, follow-up discussion, and continuous reinforcement.
It’s also lessons the impact on schedules, productivity, etc…

Bosses should ideally get the same training so that they
can reinforce and model whatever their employees are learning. If that’s not
doable, then at least provide an overview of the training with coaching and
reinforcement tips.

The right instructor.

All of the above are important – but the real key to
success is selecting the right instructor. It needs to be an instructor that
can relate well to this audience – with humility, humor, relevant examples and
stories, genuine respect, and authenticity. Someone that understands how to
take a new concept and apply it back in the world the participants come from.

The instructor could be a respected peer – or a professional
instructor – or a combination of both. There’s trade-offs with all options.

Make sure you carefully interview any potential
instructors, and ask to see them in action with a similar group if you can.
Pilot the program, and talk to the participants afterwards. Find the instructor
that’s the right fit for your audience.

BTW, I hate to say this, but the last person I would
allow to design (and deliver) training like this would be my HR person. What
you’ll get is a textbook program on how to fix their problems (how to write performance reviews, how to document
performance problems, how not to discriminate, etc…). Yes, that stuff is important
too, but it should only be a part of the training, not the trail wagging the

Please forgive me if that all sounds like training 101 –
and in fact, it is pretty meat and potatoes. The reader has some other good
ideas too, i.e., “strong change
, effective
accountability/performance management associated with the results”

Readers, how about you – what would you recommend?