A Protest From My Inner Child

Why is it that, as you progress towards supposedly higher levels in your career, the trainings tend to get more infantile?

When I was just starting out as a programmer, most of the trainings I took were of course purely technical: how to operate a particular database system, how to write software for a particular operating system. The last time I received such a training was long ago, but I remember being generally treated as an adult. The trainer’s communication style would presuppose a certain amount of intelligence and common sense from the students, and we were assumed to be already familiar with the basics of software development until we demonstrated otherwise. Some trainers were better than others of course, but in general they were efficient and useful.

At some point, however, the technical instruction started to make way for the dreaded “social skills” trainings, to be followed even later by “management skills”. The style of instruction used for these is quite different from a programming course. And it needs to be, of course: in order to improve your communication style or become a better manager, it’s not enough to memorize a list of facts – you need to internalize the things you’re taught, so that you will eventually start to apply them subconsciously. Hence, those trainers spend a lot of effort on using all kinds of creative examples and little games to get their point across.

If you’ve ever opened one of the millions of different “how to become a better manager” books, you’ve seen that trick picture in which some people see a young woman and some people see an old crone – the young woman’s chin is the old woman’s nose, etc. And if you’ve ever taken part in any kind of social skills training, you have probably spent a lot of time with your fellow students staring at the same picture.

Quick, answer fast: what was the lesson again you were supposed to take home from that exercise? Three, two, one, time is up! Uh.. Oh yeah, that you shouldn’t assume other people look at a situation the same way as you do, and you should make an effort to see things from their point of view. Now, be honest: did you actually internalize that lesson from the example given, or do you mostly remember the clever way in which the artist made the old woman’s mouth double as the young lady’s necklace? As a way to get the students to pay attention, it can work great. But when, in a single training, the teacher brings out half a dozen visual illusions based on the same principle, I think they’re missing the point.

Yesterday, I had a training which was particularly bad. It was about a specific aspect of the yearly performance appraisal process and there was only three hours reserved for it, so you would expect some effort towards efficiency. Instead, it seems as if the trainer spent most of that time making us do a whole set of children’s games: throwing balls at each other, inflating balloons until they popped, etc. Part of the training involved the well-known concept of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable etc), so we all received a box of Smarties candy – which would have been appreciated, if by that time I was not already getting seriously frustrated about being treated like a small child by the trainer. Heck, in high school we would have never accepted a teacher treating us like that. As a result, the actually useful and interesting parts of the training, such as a group discussion in which we got to discuss and criticize each other’s performance goals, had to be rushed through in far too little time.

To be clear: I do not have a problem in general with “activating instruction”, as it’s called in trainer’s lingo. When done right, they can be useful to get a point across, and they can even have value just to break the ice between the students or to get people back to attention. When you want your trainees to learn a list of items in the right order, you don’t put the list on a Powerpoint and drone it up – that may be fast, but they will have forgotten the whole list before lunch break, if they have not fallen asleep halfway during the presentation. Instead, you cut the list into pieces, ask the students to put them in the proper order, and then check their result against the correct answer. Takes a bit longer, but it greatly improves the chance that they will have retained some of the information two weeks afterwards.

But when a bad trainer gets too eneamoured with playing these childish games instead of actually teaching, there is a risk that those little games and puzzles become a goal in themselves and everybody including the trainer forgets the point they are supposed to make. The idea of the “blowing up a balloon” thing was to make some point on setting stretch goals – finding the optimal point between not challenging enough and unfairly difficult, or somesuch. But the difference between inflating a balloon and setting targets for adult professional software developers is so great that I’m having very big trouble figuring out how I am supposed to apply that lesson. Unfortunately, the trainer did not go into detail on that, so I was left with little pieces of balloon in my hair but no wiser than I went in.

Now, most likely we just had a bad trainer, or maybe I was in a particularly intolerant mood that day. Still, I wonder if this trend continues as you go even higher up the corporate ladder? I still have most of my career in front of me – suppose I make it into upper management one day, and decide to take a course on how to become a more effective Vice President (I’m assuming Vice Presidents get to make such decisions for themselves, but I’m not sure – maybe there’s a strict training program which they just have to follow). Will my trainings then consist of stacking brightly-colored blocks on top of each other and molding aesthetically pleasing shapes out of my own poop? While a sweet lady who was fired from kindergarten teaching because the kids complained about not being taken seriously, makes encouraging noises whenever I manage to shape a particularly lifelike rabbit?

Or will sanity have prevailed at that level and are the students treated like mature adults again? I promise that if I ever get to find out, I will tell my secretary to post about it on this blog.