Reaching the Reluctant Trainee, Part 1

Posted on by

If you’ve always assumed that your training audience should be purely motivated by the goals & objectives you provide, I’ll wager that you’ve also come across a few holdouts that resist online training no matter how many goals or objectives you throw at them. These are the trainees who will not be won over by logical arguments about improved performance or smarter workflows. At one time or another, all trainers must confront this challenge: How do you reach that most elusive of creatures – the reluctant trainee?

Reluctant Trainee Types

I’ve found that there are two basic “types” of reluctant trainees; although there are many sub-variations.

1. The Skeptic

    Who are they?
    A Skeptic often brings valuable real world or hands-on experience to his or her job and may be highly regarded for their skills, but when it comes to online training, they tend to be vocal critics who believe that anything worth knowing can’t be taught on a computer.

    What do they think about online training?

    • “It doesn’t honor my experience (i.e. it insults by intelligence)…”
    • “I’m too busy and important to take online training…”

    .
    Source of Their Real Reluctance
    When confronted with the reality of seeing their hard-won knowledge and experience depicted in an online training module, they worry that if others can realize the same skills and information, their real (or perceived) expertise could be compromised.

2. The Technophobe

    Who are they?
    A Technophobe may be good with the idea of learning new skills but finds the technical delivery of online training intimidating.  Technophobes may have little or no exposure to computers on the job or they may be uncomfortable with computers.

    What do they think about online training?

    • “It’s hard to use (i.e., the screen is busy, the text is too hard to read, the audio is too quiet, the buttons don’t work, etc.)”
    • “Online training never works on my computer…”

    .
    Source of Their Real Reluctance
    Online delivery may be confusing or mysterious to the Technophobe and the idea of online tests could foster feelings of anxiety, intimidation, or even distrust.  To make matters worse, Technophobes may be reluctant to admit their discomfort with technology, worrying that it will make them look less sophisticated.

The Bigger Issue

For both trainee types, the bigger issue is fear of change. People hate to acknowledge (even to themselves) that their sense of “self” is threatened by an online training module. So rather than base their reluctance on fear of change, they resist the vehicle for that change—your online training. Attempts to motivate such trainees with logic won’t reach them, because they don’t address the fear. Worse still, logical argument may even be seen as an attack on the trainee’s identity—kicking-starting a vicious cycle of reluctant behavior in the face of change.

Getting to Know Your Training Audience

The good news is that you can break the cycle by uncovering, specifically, the real or perceived barriers feeding the reluctance.  So if you don’t know your training audience, it’s time to do some research. Start by consulting with line managers, SMEs, project stakeholders, or the trainees themselves.  Get to know your training audience with a combination of structured and informal interviews using the following tools & techniques:

  • Informal Interviews: I like using the Gilbert Behavior Engineering Model to organize interviews (don’t worry – it’s not as scary as it sounds!) because it’s a great tool for guiding the conversation, helping me identify the very specific barriers and supports for behavior change – all without feeling like an interview.
  • Surveys: Ask permission to survey the training audience, directly.  Free versions of tools like Survey Monkey or Zoomerang are easy to work with.
  • Conduct a Focus Group: If you need more specific feedback than a survey can provide, conduct a few focus groups with a cross-segment of trainees. Giving people a safe environment to share outside of their workplace can help reveal insights into what really engages and motivates them.

In Part 2, I’ll pick up this topic by focusing on practical tips and engagement techniques you can use AFTER you get to know your audience and you’re ready to start designing training.

In the meantime, if you enjoy exploring what motivates people to change and want to learn more, I strongly recommend reading the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.

How are you identifying and addressing the needs of the reluctant trainee?  Please share your experiences, ideas, & questions with me by clicking the Comments link.


Trina Rimmer is a learning and communications consultant with twelve years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training solutions. When her training skills aren’t being tested by her children, you’ll find her helping others to develop their own design muscles. Contact Trina at [email protected].