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Happy (Sheet) Ending

As announced a few days back I want to dedicate today`s blog to what in the training world is known widely as a happy sheet (but terms like feedback form or evaluation form are also used, if not even more). To those lucky folks reading this that are NOT familiar with this “tool” (for lack of a better term), I am sure you have seen an example of it in some government offices, or airport toilets…where at the exit of the toilet (or service area) a little device prompts you to leave feedback (usually in the form of a selection of 3 to 5 smileys). And in my opinion, the happy sheet feedback type process belongs exactly there: the toilet.

Let me explain why.

Independently of the activity or service you are involved in, there is a wide array of factors that define if you are happy, or not. Some, if not many, have nothing to do with the service (restroom, passport control) itself. Let`s for example stay with the airport toilet scenario. You just landed after a 10h flight that was overcrowded and delayed, you are jetlagged, your toddler is screaming, and it took you 5 min to walk to a toilet that did not have a 20 people line. So obviously if asked if you are feeling happy, maeh, or grumpy, it is not the state of said toilet that will mainly define your mood (or improve it) but all the factors above and more have already pre-defined your state of mind. So, will you be objective? Like “oh I am aware that my state of mind has nothing to do with this specific toilet so I will give it a good review and revisit my own perspective on how tired I am and that it is not the toilet cleaning crew`s fault” or will you just press the “unhappy smiley” button because well, the toilet was not as clean as the one at home, generally has a bad smell, you really prefer paper towels to blowers and you hate airport toilets anyway.

Probably the latter.

Because we are usually not so good at differentiating between the various factors that define our mood, or happiness, and taking a step back to rationalize this takes a lot of practice and does not always work. Our state of mind is like one big tangled-up ball of emotion, and the simplicity of the happy sheet does not allow us to leave feedback like “I had a shit flight, and the airport setup sucks, but considering that it is 5 in the morning I find this toilet is reasonably clean”. So whatever feedback you give (“I am unhappy”) has little to nothing to do with what the feedback is asked about (“is this toilet acceptably clean”).

You get the idea?

Good, because that is exactly how it happens in the training environment.

Participants get a digital or paper form to complete at the end of the training (either right away or by email shortly after) and they can just dump their feelings (or if you want to call it feedback) in there. But we are back in the same framework as with the airport toilet. It was a long day, 20% of the participants did not want to be in the training at all, about the same amount think the content is not relevant for them, 10% are pissed at HR for some other reason, 20% have super important things to do and deadlines and really want to focus on that rather than training right now…and you ask them if they are happy with this training.

It is not that we, as trainers, do not care if participants are happy, or feel this was a good use of their time. By all means, we want to make sure they do not leave the room in a worse state than when they entered it! But first, a training session is usually a place where you are challenged, where you have to think, work, and confront yourself with what you do not know, so not the happiest place in the universe. Second, the way participants FEEL about the session should not define, or at least not mainly, if the session was good or not. We are trainers. We are not Disneyworld. Or Nutella.

I have been a trainer in organizations where the happy sheet was the sole definer if I will be hired back again or not. And what do you do in that case as a trainer? You accommodate, you try to make folks happy, to make them see the value, you become a performing monkey entertaining them more than the coach, facilitator, and challenger you should be to assure that they actually really learn something. When instructional design became a real thing (and role), I moved into that – just to see the same thing happen now (my training design was bad because the participants did not like the training. Wait. What???).

What surprises me is that every coach, every HR person, and everyone that has at any point done anything with people development, knows the essence of feedback is: it says more about the person giving it than the person receiving it AND you never dump feedback on people you ask may I give you feedback and you do so in a reflected way. And all that knowledge we have about human interaction and the subjectivity of it go right out of the window when training evaluation is concerned. Because HR is so desperate to show metrics and results, that we will take any, whether they are reflecting anything for real or not is secondary.

Maybe it is time for a happy ending of happy sheets. Maybe it is time we come up with a more differentiated, and, yes, complex, way of defining if training is useful or not. Maybe we also do not need to measure and justify everything we do because training, learning, and reflecting, per se, is GOOD, even if it does not transform into a 1:1 increase in performance. Maybe it is time we challenge the status quo of measuring learning at all. And while we are at it we might review those performance evaluations too 😉

But more on that one another time.

Wishing you a happy day!

PS: don´t just take my word for it Alliger, Tannenbaum, Bennett, Traver, & Shotland, 1997; Sitzmann, Brown, Casper, Ely, & Zimmerman, 2008 have made the case many moons ago already that happy sheets are virtually uncorrelated with learning results!

PPS: you think your happy sheet evaluations are good? Read this article:

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