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March 11, 2015

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The most important ingredient for training success

Other than practice itself, feedback is the single most important factor in learning a skilled on-the-job behaviour.

By feedback we mean providing the trainee with information about their performance so that they can learn what they did well and not so well and adjust accordingly. This is typically done via an observer, like a coach or trainer, who watches the trainee do something and then feeds back their observations.

So, let me say this again because it is so important, without feeding back to a trainee you won’t get any meaningful behavioural change! This is a finding of decades of research – it is a robust and clear evidence-based message.

What we also know is that providing feedback has to be a process, not a one-off event. Even when you achieve a high standard of on-the-job skills performance it will naturally deteriorate over time if you don’t maintain it.

In his book Drift into Failure Sydney Dekker explains how many disasters arise from a slow decline where risky behaviour becomes the accepted norm. One famous example of this phenomenon is the Piper Alpha oil rig explosion, where one contributory factor was the failure of the permit to work system that over time had deteriorated into a meaningless box ticking exercise.

Given the importance of feedback, you would expect it to be the number one technique used in workplace training – right? Well, in my experience, trainee feedback following instructional sessions is the exception rather than the rule.

The data that exists on this subject applies mainly to training in general but I believe it accurately reflects health and safety training. The studies show that only a minority of organisations provide feedback to trainees. This graph shows the percentage of employers reporting which of the four levels of evaluation they use in Kirkpatrick’s model from a large-scale study in 2009.

In Kirkpatrick’s model, level 3 equates to observing the behaviour of trainees in the workplace to check whether they are applying what they have learnt. As you can see, in this study just 22.5 per cent of employers say that they do this as part of their training. This means that 77.5 per cent of employees are not provided with any feedback as part of their training, and in my experience this figure is actually on the low side.


In 2005, a researcher called Zenger looked at a large population of employers to see where they spent their training budgets – here’s what he found:


A miniscule 5 per cent of training budgets were spent on following-up on trainees to see if they were able to implement in the workplace what they had learnt.

But these are just statistics – what goes on in your organisation? Do you provide performance feedback an on-going basis. As we’ve seen, many don’t and is a clue as to why we are getting so little on-the-job implementation of skills, and alienating trainees and line managers at the same time.

Picture the situation – employees attend a health and safety training session, typically in a classroom, and are taught some skills that they may get a chance to practice. They go back to their workplace and then…nothing!

No one comments on their attempts to apply what they have learnt even if they are inclined to have a go.

Research and common sense says this sends out a clear subliminal message to trainees along the lines of – ‘this is unimportant, don’t worry about doing it because we won’t be checking whether you implement it’.

Even worse than this is that in my experience line managers may actually provide feedback that contradicts what has been learnt in the health and safety training session. In other words, when a trainee tries to apply what has been learnt, they will say or do something that sends the message – no, stop doing that.

This conflict typically arises when line managers are not involved in the training process – where they’re sending their colleagues away to receive health and safety training from someone else: another good reason why line managers and their colleagues need to be involved in the training process and held responsible for performance outcomes.

But apart from not seeing it as their job at present, in my experience there are other obstacles to overcome if we want line managers and supervisors to provide skills feedback. These include:

  • They don’t know what to look for – in particular safety-related risk factors – this comes down to providing them with suitable knowledge based education.
  • They often don’t know how – it’s not easy. Feedback sessions are often seen as patronising or a ‘blame the worker session’ unless handled skilfully.
  • They see it as extra work – providing training feedback can be viewed as a chore unless it’s made an integral part of a manager or supervisor’s role and they are provided with simple tools to make it easy.

So, to summarise – unless we provide feedback on a trainee’s performance in the workplace, we won’t get the on-the-job implementation of required skills.

If we don’t this on an on-going basis workplace performance will naturally drift towards failure.

Line managers must become integral to this process and see it as part of checking that their colleagues are performing their roles effectively.

To do this we need to provide them with the knowledge of how to provide skills feedback and simple feedback tools that make this easier and more effective.

These are issues I will explore in future blogs.

Ian Pemberton is a chartered ergonomist who has a specific interest in the psychology of adult learning. He helps implements solutions for job-skills development and employee competency from a health and safety perspective. Ian is Managing Director of Human Focus. Contact via LinkedIn here.

Video version of the article

A video version of this article can be viewed here.


 ASTD (2009) The Value of Evaluation – Making Training Evaluations More Effective, ISBN 10:1-56286-563-3

 Dekker S., (2011) Drift into Failure – From Hunting Broken Components to Understanding Complex Systems, Ashgate Publishing, London, England

 Zenger J., Folkman J., Sherwin R. (2005) The Promise of Phase 3, Training and Development, January, pp. 30–34

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