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A lesson every L&D professional should take from the Colin Kaepernick controversy

Colin Kaepernick

A funny thing happened to Colin Kaepernick recently: everyone now has an opinion of him.

If you haven’t heard about the Colin Kaepernick controversy, choose only one of the following articles about him and then let me know what you think of him:

Article 1 (San Francisco police officers’ point of view)

Article 2 (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s point of view)

What do you think? Do you like what he’s done? Is he to be celebrated? Or do you think he’s committed an awful, ignorant, naive, perhaps even unforgivable offense?

People are forming all sorts of opinions not necessarily based upon Kaepernick’s actual actions, but rather based upon what they’re favorite talking heads are saying.

When our learners hear an opinion about our latest training course before they even have a chance to think for themselves, it can be a very dangerous proposition for L&D professionals. And there’s research that shows why this can be a bad thing.  

A paper by Eduardo Salas, et al, entitled The Science of Training and Development in Organizations: What Matters in Practice (to which Will Thalheimer directed a lot of attention several years back) highlighted a key finding about a supervisor’s potential impact on training effectiveness:

Smith-Jentsch et al. (2001) found that one misdirected comment by a team leader can wipe out the full effects of a training program.

I want to repeat for emphasis: one misdirected comment. One.

As L&D professionals, it’s very important that we not only design high quality, engaging learning experiences intended to change behaviors and improve performance, but we must also take care to supply supervisors and others throughout the organization with appropriate messaging around the ever-present question: “What’s in it for me?”. Otherwise, the “talking heads” – supervisors, peers, or others around the organization in whom our learners trust more than the L&D department – could be providing messaging that can completely under-cut even the best-designed, most engaging programs. First impressions are made even before a learner walks into your session.

What can be done about this? Salas et al. go on to advise:

Thus, organizations should prepare and encourage supervisors, mentors and team leaders to have effective conversations with trainees prior to training. These individuals should be involved early in the needs assessment so that they understand the need for training and can provide accurate, motivating information about the training.

What are some of the things you’ve done in order to get out ahead of the messaging, ensuring supervisors or other trusted “talking heads” are encouraging (or at least neutral) when it comes to setting expectations for your learners?


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Brian Washburn
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