The Next Big Challenge for Training Leaders Is Anxiety

Given the suddenness and severity of the pandemic’s onset, a great many learning and development leaders have performed admirably. From transitioning programs from in-person to entirely online, to quickly skilling employees and leaders in remote working, the talent development community moved mountains.

But now, as the corporate world yearns for normalcy and continues returning to the office, training departments will have to confront the challenge of learners’ anxiety.

Last week, Leadership IQ released a new study called “Virtual Learning Is Here To Stay.” With data from 1,809 leaders, we learned that only 34% of people are totally comfortable with in-person indoor training. And more than a quarter of people are not comfortable at all with this option. The remaining respondents are spread amongst varying degrees of unease.

Those are just some of the study’s findings, and they raise a serious question: How can we craft meaningful and impactful training experiences when two-thirds of the attendees are uneasy, uncomfortable, and anxious about being there?

This isn’t a case where performing a few perfunctory ice-breakers is going to make a dent. For example, the study found that 71% of people would need to have mask-wearing during the session to attend an indoor program. The way anxiety impacts the brain, it’s going to be nigh impossible for your participants to do higher-order thinking when they’re fixated on the colleague two chairs over who’s maskless.

Of course, you shouldn’t take this study as gospel or as perfectly representative of your employee population. Instead, you should assess your own workforce’s anxiety. You can start by using some of the questions from the study, but there are a few points you should keep in mind.

Your goal in assessing your potential learners is to discover their levels of anxiety. You don’t want to skew the results with a positively loaded question or a scale that’s open to interpretation.

Specifically, don’t use a Likert scale to assess people’s anxiety. Imagine you ask a question like, “I feel comfortable attending in-person training events.” What happens when your employees score that question a two, three, or four? In real life, what level of anxiety does that represent? Can an attendee focus on the training content if they’re at a level four? What about a three or a two?

By contrast, when we asked, “How comfortable are you attending in-person training indoors?”, response options were:

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  • Totally comfortable
  • A little uneasy, but I would still attend
  • Uneasy, but I would attend if it was required
  • Not comfortable at all
  • Not comfortable at all, I would not attend under any circumstances

We worded that question purposefully to surface people’s anxiety. Our goal wasn’t to show how excited people are to get back to in-person events (as much as I would love for that to be the case). Instead, we needed to know what levels of anxiety participants would be dragging into a session. If attendees are uneasy about being there, the session would, at best, serve as a form of exposure therapy. But beyond that, any knowledge transfer is going to be severely compromised.

One option is to offer two types of learning tracks; in-person and virtual. I know how complicated that sounds, and K-12 education has certainly shown how fraught that decision can be. But while so much of our workforce is likely riddled with varying levels of anxiety, this is an uncomfortable conversation we probably need to have.

The key to multi-track learning, of course, is choice. If you were to start in-person events with only those who were truly comfortable, a few things would happen. First, those in attendance will be engaged, focused, and motivated. Imagine conducting training with a room lacking even a single cynical or negative participant; that’s the dream for every trainer.

Second, you’d likely experience a rush of word-of-mouth internal marketing. If every participant were grateful for the in-person experience, thrilled to have participated, their positive energy would almost certainly persuade some of the mildly uneasy folks who missed out.

Third, employees committed to pursuing the online training option are also likely to be more engaged. Why? Because they chose to be there. And some of them will be grateful that the organization was willing to accommodate their anxiety about in-person events.

Ultimately, whichever path or paths you choose, your best bet will be to start by assessing your people. Then you can make a reasoned diagnosis and find the best approach to meet your employees’ needs.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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