Performance Management: "The Dentist cannot undo what the patient won't do"

October 17, 2018 9:32 AM | Lovina Akowuah (Administrator)

Written by SEWI-ATD Guest Blogger, Mark Brewer, Senior Organizational Development Manager at Milwaukee Tool, and SEWI-ATD VP of Special Projects.

In the first quarter of this year I urged anyone who waded through my first three paragraphs to help managers do what we can’t do for them:  have ongoing performance conversations with their employees in everyday interactions, model giving and receiving feedback, and focusing on the future, the only place where growth and development happens.  All of that was fixed on the end-of-year performance review process, traditionally celebrated some three months after the end of the actual year.

Also, I made some murky references to the dental profession.

Well, this isn’t about performance reviews, but it does involve the impending year-end.  And the dental profession.

When I was a kid my dentist had a yellowing placard taped to his wall that read The Dentist cannot undo what the Patient won’t do.”

I couldn’t have been more than nine years old, and my dentist was older then than I am now, so it’s doubtful I saw that little sign more than two or three times.  Yet it so captured my imagination that the memory of it has withstood the ravages of time (and the 70’s) to remain a lasting image in what remains of my long-term memory.

Having chosen to spend half of his adult life poking around inside other peoples’ foul mouths, this little bit wit and wisdom obviously held special meaning for him.  Not to mention that it was the only adornment on the walls of his offices.

But we could replace “Dentist” and “Patient” with a lot of other identities and the wisdom would hold up.  (Maybe not “Cats” and “Dogs” perhaps, but that does make you think, doesn’t it?)

As trainers and designers of training we might not see our role as “undoing” anything for our learners, though they may come to us with bad habits aplenty.  However, we know too well that our best efforts cannot do for the learner what she/he will not do on their own, on the job, every day. You know this: if they won’t practice what we teach, we might as well have filled the classroom with bags of potatoes.

What our learners do and don’t do on the job – what they choose to put into practice from our exquisite training – may be partly due to their willingness.  We all know employees who are deeply committed to owning their success, and to the development investment that supports it.  Beyond those twelve people though lies a population hostage to a great force for decay (another dental reference).

I’m talking about their managers.  Yes, those hapless individuals on whom the organization has placed the burden of employee productivity and engagement.  Those poor beasts who, through no fault of their own, find themselves responsible for other people getting the job done, stripped of their own ability to do it themselves.

For better or worse they are the models for rewarded behavior in every team, every organization.  They are the purveyors of company culture (no, not those pretty posters, pamphlets, screensavers, coffee mugs, breath mints and pens).  Their actions are the signals that guide employee work practices.  When our training and development efforts are out of synch with those signals, it’s only natural to expect employees’ practices to gravitate toward their manager’s model (or dictate, as the case may be).

If you’ve read this far you’re thinking “Tell me something I didn’t know” or “So what?”

So what?  So we are focused on the wrong employees!!  I’m not kidding.  We and our training and development programs might touch an employee for barely one-half of one percent of their work year.  Their managers, on the other hand, touch them far more than that, figuratively speaking of course.

We all know the 70-20-10 “rule.” In reality that “rule” plays out more like 95-4.9-0.1.  You know this too: 99.9% of the average employee’s professional learning and development takes place beyond the reach of our development interventions. We are the dentists who our patients might see a few times a year.

So what can we do to make sure everyone’s brushing at home?  Connect with the managers.  Make them an active part of the development programs and processes.  You probably do much of it already:

  • Do managers know when their employees are spending time in training or other development activities?
  • Do managers know what’s in that training? (do you know what’s in that “granola” bar you’re eating?)
  • Do managers know how to support that training and reinforce it on the job?
  • If we can ask the learner to “evaluate” their learning experience, we can ask managers to do the same: evaluate how the learning translates into observed behavior change on the job.
  • For every learning activity, tell managers “what to watch for” in their employees
  • Conduct learning activities with intact teams, in which managers are visible participants.
  • Provide managers with a single easy-to-use follow-up coaching question – just one -- aligned with every class or learning activity

Why is all this pertinent to year-end?  It’s not!  It’s year-long.  It’s every day.  And if the year’s gone by without it, better now than later. Like, performance reviews. Help managers make their most valuable contribution to the organization:  developing people. It’s more their job than ours.

A little regular flossing probably wouldn’t hurt either.

About the Author

Mark Brewer is a Talent Development professional with over 25 years of corporate experience. After a short career as a high school English teacher Mark earned a master’s degree in Instructional Design at Florida State University and began his corporate career at Arthur Andersen designing operational and interpersonal skills training for the Audit practice. By the time he moved to Motorola University his focus had turned primarily to Management and Leadership development. With Kohl’s Department Stores Mark was engaged in management training, performance management process, talent management and succession planning strategy, and executive coaching and development.

Currently Mark serves as an adjunct instructor for UW’s Center for Professional and Executive Development and a Senior Organizational Development Manager with Milwaukee Tool. His professional passion is helping business leaders become more confident and more proficient in developing their organizations’ talent.


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