The Life-Changing Impact of Differential Training

Differential Training

Leadership development is an important part of building more productive teams and laying down the groundwork for our organizations’ future success. But even in the best of times, this process can be a challenge – and during difficult times, learning may be shortchanged or even downright forgotten in the wake of more pressing problems. So, what are the new “best practices” in leadership development, and how can they be life-changing? Today we are joined by Simon Nance, who serves as Director of PML Programs. Here, he explains:

  • What differential training is
  • Why leadership training is closer to learning a skilled trade than an academic pursuit
  • The importance of moving outside your comfort zone; and
  • The challenge of differential training in a virtual setting!

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Defining Differential Training

  • “Differential” essentially means varying according to circumstances or variables.
    • The term differential is used in many different mathematical disciplines.
    • A differential allows for the development of a maximum outcome.
    • For training, differential means using multiple variables in human situations and building skills in practiced responses to those situations. 


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Training Your Workforce

  • Training is truly a “performance intervention.”
  • There are always things people would like to improve upon and those ideas of improvement can come from anywhere.
    • A great example is the impact of “New Year’s Resolution” headlines. Upon seeing these headlines, one begins the learning process by
      • Understanding the issue at hand (need to exercise);
      • Reading the articles to discover simple and applicable steps (different workouts) on how to achieve that performance goal; and
      • Choosing to apply those steps practically (actually doing the workouts). 
  • There are so many variables that can come into play that could hinder the performance improvements from that learning/training process, and that is where differential training comes into play. It prepares for multiple variables that could deter your completion of the learning/training experience. 
    • Different motivating factors can also change how people react to variables that can get in the way of the intended behavioral change. 
    • Emotions can come into play and can make the learning/training experience more meaningful and thus more imperative for the participant. 
    • Differential training uses emotions to help participants to change their behavior and not get deterred by variables that can stand in their way.
      • When the emotional aspect is triggered correctly, the training will trigger that emotional memory over and over again, leading to a more impactful training scenario. 
        • Circling back around to the exercise example, if, instead of just reading an article, a patient’s doctor tells them that if they don’t exercise every day, they’ll only have six months to live, that becomes a very different scenario.
        • The emotional motivating factor allows for behavior to be changed differently and for people to deal with variables in their way differently. 
  • The behavior changes from a presentation like a slide deck, for example, is so short-lived that it is not a sustainable way to train your employees. 
    • A slide deck or presentation can provide useful information, but it does not create an impactful behavior change.

Why Does The “In Your Face” Method Of Differential Training Work?

  • This method works because of the stress of the situations participants are placed in.
    • Although stressful, these situations can be failed without any permanent consequence.
    • Participants will still have the emotional connection to the issue at hand, but the training experience provides a “laboratory-like” experience that allows participants to try different responses each time. 
  • Most people learn to deal with high-stress human interactions just via experience.
    • Making mistakes in those king scenarios provides the best learning experience possible, and differential training fosters those mistakes, but without any true repercussions so that in the real world, participants will be ready.

The Benefits of Differential Training

  • Differential training positively impacts employee engagement, turnover, productivity, and safety. 
    • Leaders will improve employee engagement because they will be better equipped to handle adverse situations involving employees. 
    • Leaders will decrease turnover simply due to the better working relationships that will be cultivated following differential training. 
    • Leaders will see an uptick in productivity from not only themselves but happier, more motivated employees who could also be more open to new ideas.
    • And finally leaders will improve safety because employees will know that their leaders truly care about them and their well-being.
  • Improvements in all of these metrics will also lead to a more profitable business!

Leadership as a Skilled Trade

  • The academic model for training has been our paradigm for the last four decades.
  • Mr. Nance has been a part of the training process within highly skilled positions like apprenticeships in precision machining and maintenance mechanics & manufacturing.
    • Due to this, his leadership training perspective is different from most.
    • He claims there is more in common between good leadership training and learning as a skilled trade than there is with academic instruction and learning leadership skills.
    • For example, it is impossible to learn to communicate with an irate or indifferent employee by watching or hearing a lecture on listening skills
      • Skills like this take practice in a practical setting, and that is where leadership training becomes a skilled trade as opposed to an academic teaching. 
      • In the same instance, performing a skilled trade cannot be learned simply by learning how a certain tool works; it takes physical and mental practice. 
  • The best setting for such hands-on leadership training is actually face to face with your employees. 
    • A situation in which your leaders can interact with employees in a simulated manner is the environment that both feels authentic to the leader and employee and creates real change in how to deal with difficult situations. 
  • In essence, leaders are being developed as apprentices, with intentional hands-on training that provides a real-world feel to better prepare leaders for adverse situations in the workplace. 

Getting Out Of The “Comfort Zone”

  • The old adage is “Do what you’ve always done and get what you’ve always got” -- but Mr. Nance prefers it’s corollary, “Do what you’ve never done and get something you’ve never got”. Learning happens in either case, but if you stay within your comfort zone, the learning will simply serve as a reinforcement of current behavior.
  • There is innate risk in stepping outside of your comfort zone, which makes taking the initiative to do so a leadership trait, in and of itself. Leadership takes courage. 
  • Mr. Nance likes his leaders to learn four different traits during differential training: Have courage, Seek wisdom, Have diligence, and Have a heart for service. All of these traits are things that need to be practiced to truly make an impact, they cannot just be learned without practice. 

Blended Learning

  • Blended learning is more than just a combination of instructor-led and computer-based learning. 
  • The blended learning model Mr. Nance prefers has four modes which are all set against a learning curve.
  • An Impact curve is also utilized and the goal here is to have a high peak on this curve, thus providing the most impact.
  • Mr. nance’s four modes are:
    • Reference materials: This allows for participants to have some background information on the topic even before the training begins.
    • Live/virtual acclimation event: This provides the chance for the teacher/educator to meet the students/participants before the training/learning experience begins formally. This sets up a class dynamic that usually takes up the first hour or two of a learning experience. 
      • This is where the parameters of the learning experience can be defined and explained so everyone understands what the expectations for everyone involved are.
      • Ideally this process will happen 1-2 days before the workshop.
    • Intentional distractions: The use of natural distractions can be particularly helpful in creating new and unique learning memories to help information stick.
      • For example, if students/participants are distracted, sending out a text message with the answer to a particular question being posed in the workshop can get them back engaged.
      • Using physical items can also serve as intentional distractions that assist the learning experience.
    • Action items: Students should always leave the workshop with an action item that spurs action from what they learned in the workshop. It is an obligation to themselves that allows the student to remember their learning experience. This should be completed within 10 days or so.
      • Action items are perfect for getting students to have something to report on in follow up meetings (there are usually 1-2).

Differential Learning In A Virtual Setting

  • A major key to virtual effective leadership training is using tools that we already have in new and creative ways. 
  • Every new piece of communication technology allows us to build within the virtual learning environment.
  • Distraction is the number one issue within the virtual learning environment, so managing distractions is incredibly important.Innovation has been seen through the use of avatar-based learning games and that can solve some of the distraction issues, but not all. This space is still evolving.
  • There is more fatigue with virtual learning than in a traditional one, so breaking down the workshop into smaller chunks can be helpful in retaining people’s attention. 
  • Getting people out of their comfort zones can also be a challenge in a virtual setting, but it is doable. 
    • Stress can be built with the help of multiple producers that help build and execute a virtual workshop.
      • For example, stress can be added through something like a live interaction in which a student must interact with an “employee” about something seemingly simple, but then words like unfairness and harassment begin to be thrown around by the instructor. That creates immediate stress for the student. 
      • If the script is designed well in a live environment, creating stress is very doable. Being able to pause an online program allows a student to stop and disengage.
  • Managing distractions well is very important in a virtual setting.
  • Although an online or virtual setting is often more difficult for training, there are some instances in which it is beneficial. 
    • Things like software training are much more effective when done online.

PML Programs

  • The program can be used for unionized or non-unionized businesses.
  • It is more of a business simulation than anything else. 
    • Stressful situations are presented and practiced and regardless of the status or representation at that company, these are real-life situations that every manager and leader should know how to react to and resolve effectively. 
  • We take core principles, develop blended learning that pushes students out of their comfort zones so they can grow, and then immerse them in a differentiated environment, work them through it, and help them reflect on the learning so that they can immediately put new skills to use. 
  • Participants in the differential training method note how it is truly a life changing experience. 
  • There is a lot of effort up front to create the right situations that allow participants to grow and learn. 
  • Training is designed based on desired outcomes.
  • Clients are asked: ‘ what is the performance difference you would like to see as a result of this training?”
    • The training situations are then built based on those desired performance outcomes.
  • By getting leaders to practice these intense situations, the risk in the real situations is greatly mitigated. 
  • Self Evaluation Worksheet
  • On-The-Job Training Excellence Worksheet

Simon Nance Bio & Career Summary

  • Simon has helped corporate teams solve problems and make lasting improvements for the past twenty years through people development and process improvement. As both an Industrial Engineer and a Learning & Development expert, he creates and implements learning experiences with teams that make a permanent, positive impact on work performance at every level in an organization. Over the course of his career, he has built the entire learning and organizational development function from the ground up at two world-class companies, including programs for leader development in management, sales, business operations, and manufacturing. He enjoys coaching and mentoring emerging leaders to drive organizational results and has enabled organizations to leverage training as a performance amplifier in customer-facing education, internal skills development, succession planning, and process improvement. As a hobby business, he also has fun designing and producing educational games using his learning design insights.


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