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The cardinal rule of organizational behavior is that what gets measured gets done. Applied to training, the means the criteria used to evaluate a course not only dictate how it is designed and delivered, they also shape how trainees interpret and apply the course content.

This article discusses how three approaches to evaluation used by government agencies affect the extent to which conflict resolution training has a positive impact on the workplace.

Compliance

The purpose of many training courses is to comply with a statute, regulation, Executive Order, or agency directive that requires certain categories of employees to receive training on a particular subject within a designated timeframe. These mandates rarely, if ever, require employees to retain or use the knowledge
or skills conveyed to them. They require only that certain information be transmitted. As a result, agencies typically track only whether such transmission occurs.

One method is documenting content and attendance. For live training, this means ensuring that employees’ names appear on sign-in sheets, and that the video or PowerPoint slides they view and the manual they receive contain the requisite content.

A second method for documenting the transmission of information is requiring employees to answer questions designed to test their comprehension of the material. Both methods provide a clear audit trial for proving compliance with a training mandate, but they reveal nothing about what employees do when they return to the workplace.

As a result, these measures provide no incentive to provide quality training. The simplest and quickest ways to convey information are passive: requiring students to listen to a lecture, watch a video, or read materials on a website. Unfortunately, these are also the least effective methods for training adults. In theory, testing would create a demand for quality, but in reality this often is not the case. Since the agency’s goal is documenting compliance, it wants as high a pass rate as possible.

Retraining, retesting, or, worse yet, having to discipline employees who fail tests is an administrative burden. The easiest ways to ensure a high pass rate are to teach to the test (stress the material covered in the questions) and to make the questions as easy as possible to answer. If they are warned during a course that certain actions are illegal and could lead to prosecution, disciplinary action, or other adverse consequences, employees are likely to adjust their behavior accordingly regardless of how the course is evaluated.

But if the course is intended in whole or in part to inspire rather than command certain behaviors, the agency’s apparent lack of concern about what they do when they return to their workstations is likely to strongly influence employee behavior. The message that usually comes through loud and clear is that this course is just another bureaucratic interruption of their real work.

Reaction

Training in conflict resolution skills is often used to react to perceived problems in the workplace. If there are a lot of disputes, why not provide training in how to resolve them? If communication seems to be lacking or ineffective, communications training seems like a sensible response.

Are lawyers and other agency personnel spending a lot of time or money on litigation?
Training in negotiation or mediation skills might help. The methods typically used to gauge the success of this type of training are attendance and participant feedback. At the end of the course, employees are asked to rate various aspects of the training. Participant evaluations provide an incentive to make a course enjoyable and provide valuable information about what participants like and dislike.

But there is a serious downside to assuming that if employees like a course they will use what they learned in some beneficial way. Without any proof of a return on investment, it is hard to justify spending money on training. Many theoretically sound ideas fail to hold up in real world testing.

Furthermore, as is the case with compliance training, if an agency does not commit to measuring the impact of skills training on workplace behavior, employees may assume the agency is more concerned with “looking good” by reacting to a problem than it is with changing how things are done.

Everyone in the federal sector has seen flavor-of-the-month initiatives that come and go faster than celebrity marriages.

Performance

An agency may commit to bettering its performance on a mission- related goal and determine that training is a means to this end. Training in conflict resolution skills may further such agency goals as reducing complaints or grievances; improving employee satisfaction or productivity; or lowering sick leave abuse, attrition, or transfer requests.

Measuring the impact of conflict resolution training on employee performance creates a powerful incentive to provide top quality training . Measuring impact also makes it imperative to incorporate training into a comprehensive plan for promoting positive change. If employees are tasked with achieving a goal and are informed that training will help them achieve it, they have a strong incentive to figure out how to apply the skills they learn productively. It all gets back to the simple rule that what gets measured gets done. If the measure of success for conflict resolution training is workplace performance, employees get the message that improving performance matters. So does facilitating fialogue at work.

Since impact on a mission-related goal cannot be measured until well after a course ends, content, attendance, testing, and course evaluations are useful for ensuring a course is on track. Used as tools instead of goals, these measures can play a constructive role in promoting effective training.

The downside of measuring success by employee performance is the increased risk of failure. Content and attendance are a breeze to control, and good trainers can easily ensure that employees pass tests and review a course favorably. But staking your reputation on how others perform post-training may seem downright scary. Just remember there is tremendous power in letting go. If an agency demonstrates its belief in the skills it is teaching and the employees it is teaching them to by committing to measurable results, employees will strive to live up to expectations, and facilitating dialogue at work will become the norm rather than the exception.