Moaners, Groaners and Heel-Draggers: 3 ways to engage training and development participants who resist change

Moaners, Groaners and Heel-Draggers: 3 ways to engage training and development participants who resist change

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Training and developing people is supposed to facilitate change and provide a positive experience, a successful outcome and better lives for the participants. Yet change is a phenomenon that always seems to generate fear, resistance, and heel-dragging.

It is vital that change-makers, leaders and educators of all kinds know how to apply the top 3 techniques for engaging reluctant participants to ensure a successful learning and development program.

You are about to be given these secrets.





Humans have always tried to exert control over their lives to gain favourable circumstances and avoid unfavourable ones. This has been the blueprint for our survival.


In Greek mythology, the story of the evil king Sisyphus illustrates how experiencing a sense of no control is considered a greater torture than hell itself. Sisyphus’s punishment was to roll a huge boulder up a mountain, forever.


As soon as change causes us to feel like we’re losing control over our current and future experiences, we naturally resist. We run away from the change, drag our heels, sabotage it, or go into outright rebellion against it – for our own protection.


Having a sense of control over our circumstances – by being able to predict them, and plan how we will manage them – provides two vital benefits:


  •  It gives us confidence that we are facing a non-threatening experience that we don’t need to resist, and
  • It ensures a greater likelihood of a desirable outcome to that situation (because we can plan for it).


Change, especially when initiated by someone else, brings uncertainty and distress. This stems from the feeling that we have lost control and our ability to predict, plan and prepare for change.

To counter these feelings, we need to:
1. Remove the fear

When an unsuspecting employee is suddenly informed they have been enrolled in a training and development initiative, they may assume that it’s perceived they’re not good enough at their job; which naturally generates defensiveness and resistance.

To prevent this kind of disaster, here is one of the many techniques I have in my toolbox, which you’re free to use immediately:


• Ensure that you praise/appraise the participant before the training/development programme.  Doing this not only shows your informed commitment to their development but provides a platform from which to initiate a consultation based on a recognition of skill, contribution, and further potential, instead of an identification of weaknesses.


• In the pre-program appraisal, highlight their strengths and achievements. Use explicit examples to tell them what they have done well and what the business has gained from their contribution.  This verbal affirmation is a source of efficacy for the individual, which is the single greatest motivator for an individual to take positive action to create desired results in their lives. If you cannot identify any achievements or contributions the employee has made, I would strongly suggest revisiting (or developing) a thorough workforce plan.


• Explain to them how you intend to use training and development as a way to take their skills and contributions to the next level.


• Use positive language (e.g., you wish to build on their strengths), not negative (they need to be up-skilled to fill gaps).


• Fin increased their efficacy and willingness to undertake training and engage them further by demonstrating the need for it. If the training/development initiative is aimed at employees, explain the vital skills that are required to meet the next 1-5 year strategic business objectives and that you see them as being a part of that. According to Maslow, people can only perform at their greatest when they have a sense of belonging and identity. Explaining where they fit into the long-term plan provides this – and also a reason to intervene a success.


In short, clearly explain their purpose, relevance, and identified role in the long-term result of the change.


2. Allow them to plan

Predictability is vital to humans. It allows us to prepare mentally, emotionally, and physically; plan what we will say and do; determine what resources and experience we will require, and so on.  This gives us a sense of control over the situation.

Perceiving that we have no control or influence over a situation generates worry, distress, and dispiritedness.


As a leader, educator, or instigator of the training/development initiative, it’s important for you to recognise that participants who feel they can plan, prepare for and shape a meaningful outcome are more likely to participate.


Consult with the participants as much as possible about the training/development initiative.


• For those you cannot meet in person, you might create an online pre-course survey using a tool such as TekMatix.


(If you would like a list of pre-course survey questions that you can start using today, please feel free to leave a comment below and I will share one with you for free)


• You can further assist in their planning and preparedness by using a thorough and systematic enrolment system. If you would like a tailored enrolment pack for your course(s) or training organisation, contact us). The system should provide chronological detail of what will happen, what will be expected of them, what they can expect in return, the benefits to them, and so on.


• Somewhere in this process, be sure to give participants an opportunity to ask or express what they want to get out of the training and development initiative. What new knowledge, skills, mindset, attitude, or experience would they love to walk away with? At the start of any course, I always ask my learners to write down three ‘hopes’.  This helps me find ways to embed the additional hopes and expectations into my training and add further value for the participants. I let the students know when I have embedded an additional element to the training to make them aware of their contribution to the training. I always revisit these hopes at the end of the training to ensure that all the planned and additional hopes and outcomes were fulfilled. When this happens, nobody walks away feeling like they’ve had a negative or pointless experience.


3. Provide relevance

Training and development that is highly relevant to a participant ensures higher engagement, motivation, contribution, retention and completion rates.

We reject what we deem as irrelevant. Knowle’s theory of Andragogy (the study of adult learning), says that all new learning must offer immediate relevance to our lives for us to deem it worthy of our time, commitment, and brain capacity.


If your participants consider the training as irrelevant to them or their lives they will be unmotivated, unengaged, or even rebellious towards it.


• To solve this, contextualisation is the key. In your description of the training, outline why and how it will be useful to each participant’s life, job role, future, and so on.


 • During the training, consistently emphasise how every skill, nugget of theory, and example applies to every person, job role, and the business and industry they belong to.


• Plan to do this. When conducting employee training, I ask the client for a copy of their 1-5 year strategic company objectives (or at least a condensed version); participants’ resumes; and a copy of their two most recent performance appraisals.


This helps me plan my training to have the greatest possible impact on participants’ attitudes, behaviours, skills, and knowledge. It also allows me to contextualise the resources, delivery methods, language, and learning environment for optimum relevance. You can engage training and development participants who are resistant to change by;


•       Giving them awareness
•       Giving them time to prepare and plan
•       Reinforcing relevance
•       Defining the purpose of the training
•       Illustrating soft and hard values
•       Asking them for their input
•       Getting to know them


For more tips and techniques for engaging learners and creating effective development experiences, follow Sarah Cordiner on Facebook

How do you engage the disengaged? I’d love to know. Please share your expertise below!

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