In the bad old days before I knew any better, I tried to train workers by becoming their friend and getting them to like me. My first real experience in training occurred when I sold a moving company client my Spider Crane invention—a device that enabled movers to transport lateral file cabinets with the contents remaining in all the drawers. As a result, their clients’ employees no longer had to pack or unpack their cabinets before or after a move—eliminating a lot of unproductive office downtime. In addition, this method guaranteed that files would not be mixed up or lost.
My typical training “classroom” was my client’s warehouse, where 20 to 30 movers gathered to learn how to operate the Spider Crane. The complex device was not user friendly—several steps were required to operate it safely.
Management rarely participated in the training. It was usually just me and the movers, who enjoyed having fun at my expense for they treated me like a substitute teacher. Let me explain. While I focused my attention on training one mover at a time, the rest of the crowd joked, hooted, howled, and were disruptive. My nickname became “Mr. Knock-It-Off” because every time they interrupted my training, I’d stop and yell, “Come on guys, knock it off.” My pleas only caused the roar and laughter to intensify.
Finally, after several frustrating training sessions, I stumbled on a unique way to teach a group of blue-collar workers that worked great. Instead of being a nice guy and trying to win their favor, I totally ignored their rowdiness. I still taught the first mover on a one-on-one basis and, as before, had him perform the tasks by himself until he mastered it. Once he did, though, I broke my conventional training mold by sitting down and saying to my first “graduated” student, “Now you be the teacher and pick someone to be your student.”
You would have thought that a bomb went off and sucked all the oxygen out of the room—it became very quiet. None of the workers gave him eye contact because they didn’t want to be chosen. They knew they’d look stupid since none of them paid attention while he was being trained. Sure enough, the guy he chose to be his student was very embarrassed as he fumbled through the learning process. Since the other workers knew anyone of them might be next, they paid attention.
After several embarrassing failed tries, his first student finally mastered the process, and I said to him, “Now you pick someone to be your student.” I sat quietly on the sidelines the rest of the time while each employee got a turn being a student and then the teacher. I only intervened if someone made a mistake.
In time, this became our S.O.P. for training blue-collar workers at our company. I always marveled at the 180-degree attitude change that occurred with our students once they learned our “drill.” When they realized that they, too, would be on display in front of the entire group, they’d switch from being rowdy to becoming well-behaved students. This process worked 100% of the time. They paid attention because none of them wanted to look dumb.
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