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Challenging the ‘culture’ excuse


Alan Matthews explains why trainers need to try and make a difference - to business culture as well as learning behaviour.

I believe training is about changing behaviour. More specifically, it's often about improving performance and helping people to become more effective. But any trainer will know that people don't always want to change.

Sometimes they don't see the need for it. Sometimes they don't want to take on the extra work to make things different. Sometimes they just feel anxious at the thought of change, they prefer to stick with the way they've always done things. So, even if you offer people new ways to approach situations, new ideas, new tools and techniques, they will often be reluctant to put them into practice. And if they don't then the training was more or less a waste of time.

One of the reasons people often give for not changing is because 'it's not the culture in our organisation'. In other words,'These may be good ideas, but that's not the way things are done around here.' And the underlying assumption is, 'And there's nothing we can do to change it.'

While it's true that organisations do develop set ways of doing things, which you may want to refer to as the 'culture', it's not always true that those ways can't be changed, or that the people you're training have no influence over the way things are done. Yes, I've run training for organisations where there was a discrepancy between what was covered in the training and what actually happened in the real world. For example, where the training was in coaching skills but the organisation hadn't set up a 'culture' where management by coaching was encouraged. In those cases, the problem is that the training hasn't been based on objectives which were agreed by (jargon warning!) 'key stakeholders'. In other words, important people in the organisations hadn't signed up to the changes which the training was intended to bring about.

"While it's true that organisations do develop set ways of doing things, which you may want to refer to as the 'culture', it's not always true that those ways can't be changed, or that the people you're training have no influence over the way things are done."

But the 'culture' argument can also be a bit of an excuse. Because 'cultures' aren't usually set in stone. And they don't always work from the top down. Often, what is called the 'culture' is just habit. So people use dreadful PowerPoint slides when they're presenting because that's what they've seen everyone else do and because they don't know any better. People sit in pointless, badly-run meetings because that's all they've ever experienced and they don't know how to do things differently. And that's the point of training, isn't it? To introduce some new ideas, to help people see how things could be improved and give them the tools to do so.

If learners really feel that the 'culture' is against them, what they're suggesting is that, if they try to change the way things are done, there'll be resistance. Other people, probably higher up the chain, will disapprove and tell them to stop.

But that's not what actually happens in many cases. What happens is that, once the new ideas and practices start to filter through, other people see them and think, 'Wow, that's a much better way of doing things.' And the changes spread. And, in fact, the people who try out the new ideas may then be seen as potential leaders and influencers because they have introduced new methods which are more effective than the old ways.

So, if you meet the 'culture' argument when you're trying to encourage learners to find new ways of working, don't just accept it. Challenge it, discuss it, ask them what they can do to influence things. Build time into your training to allow for these conversations and see it as part of your role to encourage learners to question these assumptions.

Because an essential part of training is not just giving people ideas and skills, but giving them the confidence and determination to use those ideas and skills to make a real difference.

This article first appeared on Alan Matthews's blog. You can find it here. Alan Matthews runs TransformYourTraining. You can purchase his new book, 'How to Design and Deliver Great Training' from Amazon here. He works with internal training teams to help them design and deliver exciting and engaging training. You can get a free copy of 'How To Be A Top Trainer' from and you can follow Alan on Twitter at @AlanMatthews11

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