Managers Eat Learning for Lunch

March 17, 2016

Peter Drucker famously said “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast.” Executives can sit in important planning meetings and generate as many documents as they like; if the culture of the organization can’t or won’t support those plans, it’s going to be difficult to move forward.

In the olden days, NCR was one of my clients. NCR was gobbled up by AT&T in 1991, and like the Borg, AT&T attempted to assimilate them, dubbing them AT&T Global Information Solutions or AT&T GIS.

The interesting thing is, though, nobody within the acquired company called it AT&T GIS. They called it NCR. I remember facilitating courses and going to meetings during this time, where employees from leadership on down made it a point to wear their NCR branded clothing and carry their work in NCR branded briefcases, with other NCR swag visible everywhere.  In 1996, AT&T threw in the towel, spun the company off, renaming it—wait for it—“NCR.” Culture had chowed down on Strategy pretty well.

I have a corollary to Drucker’s rule. If Culture eats Strategy for breakfast, then Managers eat Learning for lunch. And here’s what I mean by that.

Learning is something we do for ourselves, not something that is done to us. We can provide people with venues for learning, but we can’t make them learn (see Horse vs. Water, 1897).  Nor can we make them change behavior. But it’s really, really, really easy to prevent them from changing behavior. Just have their manager tell them not to do it.

As learning professionals, we’re lucky to have a learner’s attention for a few hours a year. Usually, their manager has their attention every day. So who are they more likely to listen to? If a manager doesn’t help pull through what they’ve learned through action and reinforcement (or even actively tells them their behavior is wrong), behavior change becomes pretty unlikely.

But here’s the good news: most managers want to make their team members better performers. So it’s up to us learning folks to take some simple steps, including:

  • Involving managers in the design and creation of learning interactions
  • Providing managers with a clear and accountable role in improving team member performance
  • Onboarding managers into the change process, so they feel like this is something they are helping to make happen, not something that is being done to them
  • Set a clear coaching and mentoring path that gives the manager power, rather than taking it away
  • Recognizing that as smart as they are, managers need help and reinforcement, too. Provide them with the tools and methods to make them really good at this

So as we toss around our learning buzzwords of the day and create Gamified Mobile Micro-Learning Performance Support Virtual Reinforcement, let’s give a shout-out to the guys and gals out there in the real world who help make it all happen: the managers, supervisors, mentors and coaches, the old-fashioned flesh-based learning reinforcement systems. Feed them, and maybe they’ll leave your lunch alone.


Rich_Mesch_New_HeadshotRich Mesch is Vice President, Customer Engagement at Performance Development Group. A frequent contributor to industry events and publications, his most recent article was Be the CEO of Your Learning Organization for Training Industry magazine.

One Comment

  1. Chris Dawson says:

    Loved the mix of humor and insight. Reminded me why I always worked with managers to determine, design and facilitate the required training. Manager buy-in makes behavior change easier to accomplish but, you must also be persistent and creative if we want to change behavior without manager support.

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