Does my ego look big in this?
Embracing or dismissing participant feedback

The training consultant is truly the luvvie of the HR profession. We think of our stories, prepare our scripts, and get our props ready. We get into the room early to get the feel of it, whisper “good luck” to fellow trainers who are about to ‘go on’. We suffer performance anxiety, pull the furniture around to make sure that everybody has a good view and then aim to put on a show that informs, educates – and possibly entertains. And, like any good actor, we share something of ourselves with our participants – and that makes us vulnerable.

But we can’t stretch the acting analogy too far – few actors are interrupted by questions, few facilitate discussions, few are asked for advice by people who are in difficult situations. (And, most theatre-goers wait until the interval before they go to the loo!)

And we both get immediate reactions. Actors receive applause. We have evaluation sheets. But for a group of people who are ready, at the drop of a hat, to trumpet the ‘feedback is the breakfast of champions’ message, trainers can be remarkably picky when it comes to ingesting nuggets of feedback about their own performance.

Like Tom the Trainer who counselled participants about how important it was for him to get good ratings for a course he had just delivered. He then walked around the room looking over participants’ shoulders as they completed their evaluations. No pressure.

Or Tina the Trainer who always gets participants into the right mood before handing out the evaluation sheet. She gives out prizes won during the day, plays a ‘feel good’ video and shows some nice photos of the participants. “There’s us at the flipchart. There’s us doing the role play. Aaahhh”.

Tiernan the Trainer tells participants “if you’re not going to mark me excellent, please write the reason why”. A client who attended his (very good) course was unsure whether to be impressed by how upfront he was about receiving feedback or slightly intimidated by the very clear expectation that he set for the group.

Now I’m as aware as anyone of the limitations of the end-of-day evaluation sheet but I think it’s respectful to ask your participants how the day was for them, and to give them the time to reflect and respond. I like my feedback anonymous, working, as I do, on the rather crude maxim that ‘people will rarely tell you to your face that you’re crap’. And I’ve had some nuggets from participants. “Julia talks too much” is one that I always carry with me (enough said). And it’s been valuable learning through the years that what’s most important in the training room is what the participant experiences. That has been learned through comments positive and negative.

But it’s also really interesting how co-trainers and even clients will rush in to rescue the trainer who has received some negative ratings or comments. Faced with a negative and rather personal comment from a participant some time ago, a co-trainer rushed to rescue me. “I could see from the moment he walked into the room that he was trouble”. “She’s always difficult” a client assured me about a participant whose ratings for a course were significantly lower than her fellow participants’. Yes, not all participants are in the right frame of mind for training and yes, some participants play out work issues in the training room, but the rush to dismiss their responses diminishes everybody – and denies us our learning opportunity.

So what’s the alternative? Here’s what I suggest: Spend time designing your evaluation sheet. Use questions that truly measure what you are trying to do on the course. Tell participants that you welcome their honest feedback and suggestions, then give them enough time to complete the sheet. And give participants the opportunity to give feedback anonymously. Then take the time to read through the evaluations with an open mind. Don’t dismiss them as ‘happy sheets’ – these reaction sheets play a valuable role in the evaluation mix.

The interesting thing is that once you can let defensiveness and ego go, and stop thinking about your ratings, you can respond much more authentically to people in the room. Funny enough, that gets reflected in the evaluations.

None of us is going get that training Oscar by not knowing what’s not working. So, embrace the feedback and enjoy your breakfast.