Are You Just Completing Training Tasks or Going for Great Positive Impact?

by Jan Richards

Failure – well, partial failure – on a recent vacation activity reminded me what NOT to do when training someone. In this case, I was a trainee.


Here was the situation:

A group of six of us had gathered on the beautiful Oregon coast, traveling from five different locations throughout the US to share the Christmas holiday. Our daughter and her boyfriend, the most knowledgeable about Oregon, had looked for activities we might all like, in addition to enjoying each others’ company, cooking together, exploration of the beautiful area, and long beach walks. Anne and John suggested crabbing which is, essentially, going out in a boat in waterproof clothes to catch your own seafood dinner.

Were we open to the idea?

We were.

The adventure, if nothing else, sounded like fun. The day of crabbing arrived. We donned our waterproof gear of boots, gloves, and warm, water-resistant clothes. We paid for our boat, bait and other fees and bought our permits. We listened quietly and earnestly as one of the owners of the crabbing company explained the process we would be following, what to look for, and which crabs were illegal to catch, and so had to be thrown back. The lessons were simple, and we were sure we understood them. The woman training us seemed to be sure we were ready, too. Her husband led us out to the boat we would use, and helped us get launched, providing lessons there on using this particular boat.

We headed out to the open water, a bit nervous but ready for the fun work ahead. Soon, with patience, practice, purposeful experimentation, positive attitudes and a little friendly competition, we started to catch cioppino-bound crabs. We filled every minute we had and headed back to port, buoyant, cold, tired, a bit wet despite our waterproof clothes, and feeling somewhat lucky and happy about our five-crab catch. We also felt good about our teamwork and the process we’d “mastered” as much as we could in the few hours’ learning and experimentation we’d had for the task. We sized up the afternoon’s work as a relative success.

Or so we thought.

Here’s the problem:

As we took off our gear, the owners of the crabbing company started getting crabby, and then accusatory with us about some unexpected holes in the nets. We’d noticed one, too, as we worked, and wondered how it had happened, but tried to adapt by tying knots from a few of the seemingly chewed through ends of the cording. We had followed their training to the letter, and reiterated that to these angry people, as they drove away future business in their process of defending their nets. They blamed, accused, and turned what had been a fun adventure into, frankly, a baffling and maddening one. I quickly tired of their accusatory tone, and replied, “We don’t know what you’re talking about. REALLY! We DO NOT UNDERSTAND what you’re talking about!”

Nothing they described as having happened to the nets on our watch, and none of the ill intent they attributed to us had been true. Trying to make heads or tails out of this unexpected situation, I added, “Those things you’re describing make NO sense. Why would we do something to let the crabs OUT of the net? It was our goal to CATCH them.”

Part of me wondered if part of the way this duo increased their short-term profits (thinking nothing of the probable long-term effect) was to charge each boat an additional $40 for a net, after the fact. And as I write this, I still wonder about that.

And in a negative sense, it was amazing to be reminded what a major impact a bad attitude from one or two people can have on a group, and how it can come close to ruining a otherwise-great experience…unless you actively counteract the effect. I was also amazed that the owners of the company were not taking any responsibility for the training they provided. As the experience wrapped up and we drove off with our crabs and distasteful memories of those crabby owners, we STILL didn’t understand what went wrong with the adventure of the nets.

We DO know a few things, however:

– We were glad to have shared the good part of the adventure.

– We were glad we’d caught enough crab for dinner, since we’d invested time, effort and money in the process.

– We would go crabbing again…just not through that company.

Here, then, are a few recommendations, if you train other people, in anything, for any reason:

1. Mistake-proof the process as much as you can. Teach the mistake-proofed process.

2. Help the learners understand the big picture, goals and process they will be using.

3. Provide the significant details that can ensure success and cause failure, if you know the things that may happen with novices at the helm.

4. Provide visual aids that learners can easily refer to as they work, if need be.

5. If you see the learners doing something wrong, correct them during the process.

Don’t wait until after the fact to inform them they did something wrong, and worst of all, to do it in an accusatory manner. That’s essentially lying in wait, hoping they’ll fail so you can be “right.” However, if they fail at the process, and you see it happen…whether you trained them on those details or not…but do nothing to correct it, the fault is yours. You have the power to prevent a problem that they, who are less experienced, may not even be able to see yet.

6. Assume good intentions on the part of the people you’re training.

It makes no logical sense that someone would want to spend their time, energy, and money, if that is also involved, doing things wrong.

7. Take responsibility for your training design, detail, and effectiveness.

8. If you think you’re training effectively, and you want to make sure you are, you’ll ask learners for their feedback, as well as objectively assessing their successful application of your training attempts.

About the author

Jan Richards mentors and provides online training for leaders and teams who want to change or improve, but the desired change hasn’t happened yet, for any of many reasons. An experienced entrepreneur and business consultant, Jan has led many teams and businesses through major change and improvement projects. She is based in the always-rapidly changing Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay area. Her clients include large and small companies, primarily in tech, biotech, financial services, and telecommunications. She has an MBA from UC Berkeley and a BS in journalism from Iowa State. She was a national examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for five years. Prior to starting her consulting business, Jan worked for seven years at Apple Computer where she worked on and led teams that improved key business processes in product development, manufacturing, distribution, finance and administration, and sales and marketing. To learn more, visit her website at