Use Teachable Moments to Train Your Employees

Photo: H-Gall

Equipping people to make excellent decisions is a great idea. But great ideas often collide with day-to-day pressures and overworked, muddled-thinking employees who are ill-prepared to deal with business complexities. When problems that defy flow-charted responses occur, turn them into "teachable moments" as case studies for discovering clarity and making smart decisions.

The teachable moment is the narrow window of opportunity to show employees how business mission, values, and goals translate into real-world action. Parents often use this approach when their children encounter difficulties, have questions, and are eager to listen to advice about specific situations.

Don’t underestimate the power of this gentle tactic. Teachable moments can give employees the insight needed to navigate business minefields.

Know what you want to teach.

Define the skills that are difficult to teach, such as insights that are seemingly impossible to impart and the knowledge base that is hard to transfer.

For example, show your employees how to:

  • Handle sensitive customer service situations, such as price negotiations or collection issues;
  • Respond appropriately to unusual requests, distinguishing them from fraudulent ones;
  • Deal with a volatile workplace scenario;
  • Get buy-in and collaboration from an uncooperative employee, vendor, or customer.

Recognize the teachable moment.

Quickly solving a problem and swiftly dealing with a crisis are reasonable actions of a forward-thinking business owner. You want to stop wasting resources on a past event and forge ahead with new ideas. However, making difficult decisions yourself can deprive your employees of opportunities to learn the intricacies of your business.

One way to readily identify the teachable moment is to know ahead of time what you want to teach, even if the list is not exhaustive. For example, when a credit problem surfaces, recognize that an employee needs a better understanding of vendor reference checking.

You will also need to train yourself to spot people-development opportunities in the midst of day-to-day business activity.

Be willing to have a conversation.

Turning teachable moments into real-life education requires dialogue between you and your employee. Listen to your employee tell you about a scenario, actions that have been taken and those being considered, and concerns about the negative consequences of possible next steps. Provide guidance that helps the employee gain a deeper understanding of your business approach.

Don’t simply issue a command or give highly specific instructions. If the employee has no mental engagement, then your conversation has morphed from a teachable moment to a dictatorial one.

Tie lessons to performance goals.

Some people may want answers rather than wisdom, especially those working in fast-paced environments where quick decisions are rewarded. Get the attention of these employees by showing how certain skills, knowledge, and insights you are teaching can help them reach their previously defined and communicated performance goals sooner.

Let employees know that taking the time to apply intellect and nuanced understanding to business decision-making will certainly result positive performance reviews and merit raises.

Realize that learning occurs over time.

The teachable moment concept requires developing employees through instruction during random events occurring over a period of time, rather than using a curriculum with a distinct beginning and end.

Don’t try to convey all of your insights and methods at one time. Focusing attention on a single topic may seem counterintuitive to visionary business owners who want to show how specific instruction is aligned with strategic direction. But in my experience, too much elaboration, discussion, and teaching can be confusing. Even the best of your brightest employees can absorb and act on a limited amount of information. Enlighten employees using ideas relevant to the problem at hand.

As employees gain mastery, they will see problems not evident before and they will uncover underlying causes. Your conversations provide a forum for greater and greater engagement and mutual understanding; as a result, employees better articulate the troubling, complex aspects of any given situation.

Formal training has its place.

Formal training is certainly useful. Vendor-sponsored sessions on new products, community college classes on management principles, certification courses offered by professional organizations, and more can elevate the knowledge and skills of your employees. In-house presentations on the company’s mission and values can provide a guide for decision-making. Role-play sessions on topics such as selling the competitive features of a newly launched product or rebuilding loyalty with a disappointed customer can be essential to setting the tone for interacting with people.

As a small business owner, though, you have limited time and resources for educating your employees even if you access low-cost and free sources of training. To get your point across in a memorable way that is immediately useful, tap those teachable moments.

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