Training to fail: Negative expectations sabotage results

By Hugh Alley   

Industry Manufacturing manufacturing performance training

Focus on what the trainee does right, address what needs improving.

Use a proven methodology for training.

A supervisor who worked for me assumed four out of five people were incompetent. After hiring a new person, he would put very little effort into training because he expected the trainee to fail. Of course, with such cursory training, most did, which reinforced his belief. His approach cost the company thousands of dollars in hiring costs and lost productivity.

When we train someone, we tell ourselves a story about that person. It turns out the story we tell matters.

There’s a stream of research involving elementary school children that shows a teacher’s expectations affects a student’s performance. The impact is greater when the teacher expects the student will do poorly. Ditto for workers.

If you expect one of your crew members to mess up while he/she learns a new skill, you’re going to be looking for every sign that person is messing up. But you’ll miss all the elements the trainie gets right. Since people respond better to positive reinforcement, you have set the odds against that worker learning the new skill.


What stories might we be telling ourselves about the people we’re training? Here are four beliefs that affect our instruction:

Biases about the capabilities of people from particular cultures or nations.

People of a certain age are more or less capable.

Women or men are more suited to a particular task. Don’t laugh… recently I had a plant supervisor tell me that he doesn’t hire women because they can’t do the jobs in his area well. I didn’t buy it.

Only someone with a particular background or experience can learn a particular skill or machine.

Accepting these stories does a disservice to three groups: people from that group because you deny them opportunity; your company, because you have significantly narrowed the range of people from which to draw; and you, because you’ll miss out on interesting learning opportunities.

How do we counter this? Here are three things that will significantly shift expectations for how well people will learn:

Use a proven methodology for your training, such as the Job Instruction module in Training Within Industry.

Look for one or two examples of inspirational people from your new learner’s group as reminder of how much trainees are capable of achieving.

Ask your learner about the hardest thing he/she ever learned, and you will be amazed at what that individual has already mastered, and is capable of learning.

When you go into an instruction session knowing you are using a great method inspired by what has been done by people from your learner’s group, and by what he/she has already learned, you’ll be more likely to tell a positive story about your learner. That will help everyone learn better. Training will be faster, cost less and your boss will thank you for both.

Hugh Alley is an industrial engineer based in the Vancouver area who helps organizations achieve significant performance gains in delivery, quality and cost over a short time frame. Call (604) 866-1502 or e-mail

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 print issue of PLANT Magazine.


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