Years ago, I was the sole trainer for a local county government. It was an interesting position because I was expected to design and deliver training programs and to have expertise on just about any topic. In fact, to save costs for one of the departments that had a mandatory training requirement, I was once asked to design a course on auto maintenance. Let me tell you, as someone who will likely deflate a tire while trying to figure out air pressure, I should not have anything to do with training on auto maintenance.
The most challenging situation I faced was when employees said they didn’t need any training because they were at the top of their game. As I was given to understand, these employees had reached a stage of professional perfection. They had no need for any additional development in their communication, conflict resolution, teamwork or any other soft skills. Can you imagine being someone who thinks they have nothing left to learn? Software gets an upgrade, if only to make minor improvements and fix bugs, and so should we.
As it turns out, there is a psychological effect around this phenomenon. Roughly summarized, most people tend to overestimate their capabilities. In 1999, two Cornell University psychologists, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, conducted a study and concluded that our own incompetence prevents us from seeing our incompetence. (Their finding is now referred to as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.) Think about it: If you don’t do something well, you don’t have the ability to know whether you actually do it well or not.
Circling back to professional development, it’s highly probable that employees who think they have no need to learn anything new really do need to learn a thing or two. Here’s where feedback comes into play: It’s possible that people think they’re experts at something because no one has ever given them any feedback. See where I’m going with this? Yes, I’m referring to those incredibly uncomfortable situations when we need to give someone performance feedback.
Giving someone feedback on additional skill-building, whether technical knowledge or soft skills, can often be sidestepped for a variety of reasons. One is that the employee does a great job, and while they might benefit from additional development, it’s easy to excuse the improvements that could be realized in light of their otherwise overall stellar performance.
Feedback, however, doesn’t have to be delivered in a negative manner. It’s entirely possible to talk with an employee and tell them you are presenting them with an opportunity to upskill. Merriam-Webster defines “upskilling” as providing someone with more advanced skills through additional education and training or acquiring more advanced skills through additional education and training.
The conversation with the employee might sound something like this: “You did such a great job with that situation with our member the other day, talking him through the registration process. Our system can be cumbersome, but you explained it so well. You also handled that difficult situation with the vendor very well. In fact, you do so well, I’d like you to upskill, to expand your skills. I’m offering you the opportunity to attend this session and bring back what you learn to the office.”
Put that way, it’s difficult for the employee to decline, isn’t it?
Software gets an upgrade, if only to make minor improvements and fix bugs, and so should we.
But suppose they do try to wiggle out of the opportunity—what then? Point out another time when they didn’t do as well and say that’s the type of situation you’d like to see them upskill because that expertise is needed in the office.
If they still feel they have nothing left to learn, they may say they were just off their game that day, they didn’t eat breakfast that morning, it was raining, or they have some other excuse. If this happens, they have essentially redflagged the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but they don’t need to know this. Just continue to assure them that this is a great opportunity for them, coverage for their job has been handled, and you’re excited to hear about how the training goes.
In addition to an employee’s lack of awareness about what they don’t know, an element of fear may be involved in professional development. They may be afraid they’ll be bored, that the office can’t survive for a day without them or that they might not actually be capable of improving. So, stick to the point of appreciating their skills and the opportunity for them to upskill.
In the words of Albert Einstein, “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”