All of life’s experiences can provide insight into running a small business. A good friend just drove this point home after adopting a new dog. She’s full of stories about her training challenges and as she told me her tales (or should I say, “tails?”), it was clear that the principles applied to employee training as well. You may have never trained a pet, but your own childhood memories or even your favorite TV show provide lessons that can make you a more effective employee trainer.
Keep it Positive
When my dog-training friend talks about her own childhood music training, it is easy to see the difference that positive reinforcement makes in a person’s ability and willingness to learn. She dutifully practiced piano (for a while), but her mother kept running into the room, yelling, “WRONG NOTE!” She quickly lost interest in playing piano. On the other hand, her mother’s outspoken pride in her dance abilities created a prodigy. At 13 years old, she was the youngest student in the advanced class that was generally reserved for teachers.
Positive reinforcement has real power over employees’ current and future success, so be sure to catch trainees doing something right and commend them for it. Each success breeds employee confidence, making it easier to master future tasks successfully. In fact, a well-placed compliment can feed their drive for success throughout their careers.
Also, give employees credit for contributions in front of clients, vendors and other employees. The more that the employee knows that they are valued, the more incentivized they will be to do their best work.
Set New Employees Up for Success
Of course, it’s hard to provide positive reinforcement when the tasks are too complicated to learn, so break down new tasks into smaller components to give employees a real chance at success. Think back to the classic I Love Lucy Episode when Lucy and Ethel take jobs in a candy factory. They had about a minute of training before taking their places at a slow-moving conveyor belt to wrap chocolates. When the belt speed increased, the girls start stuffing candies into their mouths, their blouses and even their hats. They were set up to fail.
Not all jobs can be learned in five minutes —or even a week. And even relatively simple jobs cannot be performed at top speed on the first day. Break down procedures into manageable tasks so employee successes drive accuracy. Consider constructing checklists that the employee signs off on as they finish each task component. If you set them up for success, your employees will gain confidence and speed.
Use Errors as Training Opportunities
You have the power to turn trainee mistakes into lessons, rather than sources of embarrassment. My dog-training friend was happily surprised when a gentle “uh-uh,” combined with an acceptable chew toy, stopped her pup from biting an electric cord — and he avoided all cords from that point on because he learned what was wrong and what was right. Of course, saying, “uh-uh” to an employee would be patronizing, however, pointing out an error and gently correcting it makes a lot of sense.
No matter how carefully you conduct training, employees do not always know what “right” looks like until you point it out. If they pick lug bolts when filling a customer order that requests lug nuts, you have the opportunity to go beyond correcting that single error. This is the time to point out that many fasteners have similar names, so a careful review of each bin label is essential while picking each item in an order.
People have differing backgrounds and a variety of learning styles; they do not all need to learn the same things in the same way. You need to be flexible enough to make training interesting and informative on an individual basis.
I know a seasoned sales rep who nearly walked out on his first day when he was herded into a room with sales newbies to watch a week’s worth of generic sales training videos. Sure, he needed to learn the company’s product line and its sales culture, but he did not need to learn what a “cold call” is. Rather than lose the company’s most valuable new hire, the sales manager personally took on his training.
Let the Student Become the Teacher
New employees have a fresh outlook and ideas that are untainted by a “we’ve always done it this way” attitude. From their first day on the job, they can ask questions or spot process incongruities that can make things unnecessarily difficult. When my friend’s dog insisted on getting his leash attached while sitting on a chair, he made the process easier — no stooping required. So, whether trainees have certain personal preferences, or if they see ways to make a process simpler or more precise, you should listen and learn.
Even seasoned business owners have new things to learn. Just as you accept suggestions from your longer-term employees, never discount the possibility that the new kid on the block has something to contribute. Everyone benefits when the student becomes the teacher.