“Nice” Trainers Are Never Good Trainers

Taken in Singapore, the Light Rail Transit (LRT) at Punggol, when the train was exiting from the station. The railroad curves to the right taking passengers deep into the town.

Over a lunch session with my colleagues, the topic of some trainers having a good reputation among staff popped up. More specifically, a particular trainer was praised by the learners as being “Nice”.

Immediately, I jumped into defensive mode.

I have been in the industry long enough to know some basics: “Nice” trainers are never good trainers.

To understand why, we need to understand how the title “nice” is awarded to a trainer.

Taken at Lifelong Learning Institute of Singapore, a wall mural, with the words "Every day, a learning day".

Imagine yourself being in a First Aid refresher course. By “refresher”, it means you received training 2 years back and you are returning to be re-certified by regulation/rules. Without passing this training, you cannot continue to be a certified First Aider, and you might even risk losing your job.

That being said, you dread coming for such lessons. What for? Such skills are rarely being used (and since you work in a team, surely someone else can step up when there’s a need?). Coming down for training means losing out on earning the extra commission/allowance that you would have otherwise earned if you were out in the frontline.

In other words, you think this refresher is a waste of time even though the company thinks otherwise.

The trainer comes in, conducted the lesson and it’s time for the test. After “pumping” the mannequin for a few times, the machine indicated that you are not giving enough force and the air you blew into the mouth was insufficient.

In other words, you just failed the test.

But your trainer/tester steps up and said, “Never mind, you are a very experienced staff. You would have attended many such refreshers throughout your career and you will definitely know your stuff.” And with that, he checked the box that said “Competent”.

You are grateful. Instead of making you take the test again and again, you can now leave the training centre before 5pm, and have time to go settle some personal stuff. The trainer values your experience in the company, unlike the dreadful HR staff who always called you back to address some customer complaints, as though you are a newbie.

This trainer is… “Nice”, you will tell everyone who meets you, and you will say it with a smile and a raised eyebrow.

The First Aid refresher is just an example I plucked off the air. It can be another kind of professional training, or even happen in a typical school or college.

A professor is “good” because he does revisions before the big test and EVERYTHING he covered came out in the test.

That driving instructor was “good” because when you forgot to check your blind spot, you just looked at him with puppy eyes and “poof!” those demerit points disappeared.

All of us know of such “nice” trainers at some point of our lives and we were grateful for having them. However, from a professional point of view and from the view of an employer/supervisor, such trainers are not “nice” because they are creating learners who can’t apply what they learned in the workplace. In other words, my money spent on training my staff is wasted.

Now, before you start witch-hunting for false positives in trainers, imagine the same scenario I raised above, with the following changes:

Taken at Lifelong Learning Institute of Singapore, the advertisement sticker on the escalator saying, "Skill Up."

The trainer, upon seeing that you failed your test, insisted you retake it, but not without going through a debrief of what went wrong. He told you to straighten your arms and use your body weight. He advised that you go for regular swimming, so that you can train yourself to give bigger, stronger breaths. He assured you that you need not be stressed, because in a real situation, the whole CPR can be broken down into different actions, undertaken by different people.

You eventually passed the test, though not without some difficulties and “loss of face”. Yet when something really happened while you are on duty, you were able to execute the tasks well, so much so that your supervisor was all praise about how much your training helped you in executing your task.

You smiled, as replied, “Well, I had a good trainer. You know what? He guided me by…”

Yes, there are still times when trainers who have been praised by learners / supervisors turn out to be genuinely good, the question is, how do we know?

When trying to determine who a good trainer is, look for specific guidance that he provided the learners with. It shouldn’t be as simple as “he let us play games during lessons”, but some specific stuff like, “after the games, he got everyone to share what we thought we learnt.”

Sidetrack: I used to know a trainer who earned points on all aspects of being a good trainer. Learners said he conducted learning activities that were fun, he was gentle, he spoke in simple English, he was patient in answering their questions etc. But those learners went on to work and supervisors complained that those staff did not know their stuff well. In this classic case, learning was fun, but learning was not effective.

Good trainers focus on whether the learners internalised the knowledge and whether they can transfer that knowledge to the workplace.

Usually, that process forces learners to undergo uncomfortable phases of speaking out their minds in front of public (which many Asians detest!), or to go through the difficult task of relating the learning to actual applications in the workplace. It is precisely this process that causes trainers to fall out of favour with learners; learners don’t enjoy this process and they don’t like trainers who make them go through this process. This is why good trainers never earn the reputation of being “fuzzy nice”.

Now that I have covered both ends of the spectrum, I need to highlight that we should not go into hasty generalisation.

Taken in Singapore, the Light Rail Transit (LRT) at Punggol, when the train was exiting from the station. The railroad curves to the right taking passengers deep into the town.

Just as not all trainers who are “nice” are “good”, not all trainers who are “strict” are therefore “good”. A professional trainer will never use violence or sexually harass (physically or verbally) their learners; these are outright “bad” trainers!

The grey area comes in when trainers use insults / sarcasm that makes learners uncomfortable. If my learners are undergoing training for customer service, I will not penalise my trainers for using personal insults. Unprofessional as it seems, my learners need to get accustomed to such treatment because things get harsher on the customer front. If the learner cannot handle such verbal abuse without writing a complaint letter to the Principal or Minister (like what Singaporeans love to do), then the learner can never survive as a customer service professional.

Sidetrack: In fact, I conditioned learners by challenging them to address the abuse: speak to the trainer, using the skills they learned in other lessons – being assertive, use positive body language, apply NLP – and try to reach an agreement with the trainer to stop the verbal abuse. None of them succeeded, of course, since they were still novice in all these soft skills, but they were reportedly less whiny and received praise for being motivated learners.

On the other hand, I see no need for sarcasm if a learner is trying to learn how to use Microsoft Excel.

In conclusion, always be aware when you hear that a trainer is “nice”. Probe more into why the trainer has that reputation. If the trainer is genuinely good, the learners would be able to give specific examples of how he helped them apply the knowledge in the workplace. Be aware of red herrings – trainers who make lessons fun are not necessarily good trainers; good trainers must ensure the knowledge is transferred to the workplace!

As a general rule of thumb, “nice” trainers are never good, because if the trainer is good, people will not resort to the adjective “nice”.

Macro shot of a white flower, taken at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore.

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