A kind word changes everything—especially when you’re learning something new

My wife is six months into a new job.  She has been through a lot of training since she started and just recently completed a four-week class to qualify for an advanced role.

She’s been struggling to learn all of the different components of the new role and she hit a low point this past Wednesday.  With the training coming to an end, she felt she had only mastered 40% of the required skills.  As a result, she was thinking of turning down the advancement and asking to remain in her previous role.  Even worse, she was reconsidering her decision to take the job in the first place.  Maybe it wasn’t a good fit for her, she told me.

I was surprised at her reaction.  I knew my wife had been struggling to pick up the new skills, but I also knew that she was a bright, capable, woman who had mastered much tougher content in the past.  I did my best to offer a word of encouragement as I left for a 2-day business trip, but it didn’t seem to help much.  I could see the concern on her face as I kissed her goodbye.

Normal, but still painful

I thought about what she was experiencing as I travelled.  I knew that her reaction was normal and something that all people experienced when they were learning a new skill.  At Blanchard, our Situational Leadership II model called this Development Level 2: Disillusioned Learner.  It’s when people go from being enthusiastic about a task when they first start, to disillusioned when the task is more difficult than they anticipated.  However, with encouragement, and as they begin to apply their new skills and gain confidence, they finally move on to mastery.  It all sounds so neat in theory, but as my wife demonstrated, it doesn’t make it any easier for the person going through the process.  Still, reconsidering whether to stay with the company seemed an especially strong reaction.

That’s why I was so surprised when I returned home and she told me that she was moving forward with the new role and was even looking forward to the next position beyond that.

“What happened,” I asked, amazed at the complete change in her attitude in less than 48 hours.

What she told me next were two important actions that all managers need to add to their skill set when asking employees to stretch and try something new.

  1. She received some positive feedback.  After two weeks of practicing her new skills (badly, in her mind) she received some outside feedback on how she was doing.  She was surprised to find out that she had received a 97 and a 98 rating on her two recent evaluations.  These scores were consistent with the scores she had been receiving in her previous role.  She was shocked that her work was so good.  She was sure that she was going to receive bad scores.  The lack of feedback up to this point had caused her mind to imagine the worst.  A little bit of positive feedback provided a different perspective and dispelled that fear.
  2. She talked to her manager about her concerns.  She shared with her manager that she felt that she had only mastered about 40% of the material.  She also expressed her concern that maybe she wasn’t a good fit for the role.  Her manager reassured her that she was right on track and even shared a personal story that she remembered only being 20% confident of the material when she had completed the class years before.  The manager also shared that my wife was doing great, was one of the best people on the team, and that she had a bright future with the company. A little bit of encouragement and my wife’s confidence was restored.  In fact, she now had a “just watch me grow” attitude I hadn’t seen since she first started.

Is it time to check in with your people?

How are your people doing?  Are they knee deep in learning new skills?  Have you checked in with them lately?  It never hurts to ask.

Disillusionment is a normal stage of development.  By responding appropriately with encouragement and support, managers can help their people get through this difficult stage and move on to confident performance.  Don’t risk losing any of your best people to an extended period of disillusionment.  Don’t let a drop in confidence and perceived skill keep your people from moving forward.  Check in and see how they are doing.  Offer a word of encouragement if appropriate.  It can work wonders!

2 thoughts on “A kind word changes everything—especially when you’re learning something new

  1. Pingback: Five Blogs – 27 March 2012 « 5blogs

  2. Pingback: WORK | Pearltrees

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