Mandatory training is one of the most vexing challenges of corporate learning. Whether it’s ethics, diversity, regulatory compliance or the latest culture change, employees often are involved because we make them participate. The intent of mandatory training is honorable. We need to ensure full coverage of enterprise competence in the latest and the most important. By forcing compliance, however, we violate the most basic rule of learning: Adults seek learning for their reasons, not because they were told.
A few years ago, I was drafted to support a senior leader’s dream of sweeping culture change regarding meeting etiquette. The mission handed down to me: Have the top thousand leaders schooled on the new way. I proceeded to engineer a series of learning events, complete with a tight tracking mechanism, so no one would escape. The result was an impressive execution of corporate rollout. Less impressive was any lasting evidence of improvement — in the end, it was all a waste of time.
From Compliance to Commitment
What I should have considered is our work is influence-based. Social psychologists have studied influence for many years and have classified the tactics thereof as either “hard” or “soft.” The difference is the amount of freedom a person exercises to yield or resist a tactic. Hard tactics are more forceful and push the individual. The result is submission, and that might result in unintended opposition. If you’ve seen participants show up or log in to your program with low engagement and apathy, you’ve produced compliance but not much more. If you’ve seen avoidance, passive-aggressive behavior or even a bit of sabotage, your influence efforts have gone beyond generating compliance to breeding resistance. Mandated training is clearly a hard tactic. Soft tactics, on the other hand, are influence actions that produce commitment.
I am fortunate to have a communication offering that needs no CEO mandate. Each program is booked solid for the next 12 months, with an extended waiting list. The training fills a need everyone can see. But not all of our work falls into this category. Some mandatory training seems unavoidable to run an enterprise. So, what to do? The starting point is to minimize the “learning by command” rationale. Most senior leaders are willing to listen to the downside of mandatory training. As long as rollout plans are aggressive and promise impact, most leaders will accept training that garners commitment while avoiding the resistance a fiat generates. But when everyone must go through training, the research on influence points to applying a mixture of hard and soft tactics. In fact, studies have shown blended influence strategies can double or triple the odds of success.
Consider the Soft Seven
When faced with compulsory training, increase your influence with the following methods.
The first three have the most power to build commitment:
- Consultation: Involve the target audience in planning or choosing how it wishes to receive the training.
- Inspirational Appeal: Build an emotional request or proposal that arouses positive reaction by appealing to commonly held values and beliefs.
- Personal Appeal: Based on your credibility and relationship, ask for participation as a “favor.” Moderately effective influence tactics include:
- Rational Persuasion: Provide logical arguments and factual evidence to win support.
- Integrating: Get the audience in a good mood before soliciting involvement.
- Upward Appeal: Seek approval of those in higher positions and leverage that approval when communicating.
- Exchange: Offer a reward or tangible benefit for participation or remind someone of a favor that should be reciprocated.
If I had another shot at rolling out “new-way meetings,” I could augment the hard compliance aspect by first consulting with key stakeholders on delivery options. When soliciting the first wave of participants, I could have the senior sponsor (or other credible supporters in targeted groups where I have a record of good work and strong relationships) provide the emotional appeal to sign up. Do not be seduced into going for compliance alone. Make more of an effort to gain commitment. The outcome will produce the lasting value-add we all strive to achieve.
© Kevin D. Wilde