Posted: Aug 22, 2017
Tell us if this situation sounds familiar. You’ve just hired a new server who seems like a perfect fit for your restaurant. You’ve shown them all the basics, like how to set the table for service, how to greet and seat customers, and how to take orders. They’re so confident you have no doubt they’re going to wow your customers.
But when they actually get out on the floor, they seem to be completely ignoring your advice. They keep making the same small mistakes, over and over again. It’s beyond frustrating, and you’re about to lose your cool, because you don’t have time to re-train them. It’s so basic you can’t understand why they’re not getting it.
There’s a reason this happens all the time in the workplace, and it’s not because your employees aren’t listening to you, though it probably feels like that sometimes. It’s because of something psychologists call ‘the illusion of competence’.
What is the illusion of competence?
The illusion of competence is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. You will explain a concept to someone, and though they listen carefully and believe they have mastered the topic, it turns out they haven’t retained the information at all. When it comes time to demonstrate what they have learnt, their skill level doesn’t correlate with what they think they’re capable of.
You might be tempted to blame this on millennial arrogance, but it’s actually related to how our brains process information. When we learn, we exercise two parts of our memory – our short-term memory and our long-term memory. When we first learn a new topic, by reading, watching, doing or talking about it, the information is stored in our short-term memory and we feel certain that we have mastered it.
But not all of that information gets transferred into our long-term memory. And a lot of the time, we recall the experience of learning it instead of the material itself, because feelings tend to be more permanent than thoughts. That’s when we start making mistakes without recognizing that what we’re doing is wrong.
The impact of this attitude
Obviously, you want to nip this illusion of competence in the bud, because small service mistakes can have a huge impact on a customer’s dining experience.
It’s also important to address because it can impact your staff member’s ongoing attitude towards learning. If they believe they already have the knowledge, they’re not going to be receptive to further learning. They could even pass their misinformation onto other staff members, spreading their bad habits across the venue, and they might push back against you and other managers when told to do something in a way that differs to their own experience, because they don’t see the issue.
At this point you’re probably thinking this hypothetical employee sounds like a lost cause, but we promise – they’re not. If you make some simple changes to your training program, you can ensure everyone absorbs your lessons properly.
How to break the illusion?
Chunk your training
In order to transfer more information from someone’s short-term memory into their long-term memory, Dr. Barbara Oakley, a professor who specializes in learning practices, recommends ‘chunking’ your training – that is, teaching employees in smaller chunks over a longer period of time, instead of cramming all of your training into one session.
Drawing training out like this gives your employees the chance to properly pause and reflect on each concept before moving onto the next. A day long training session, on the other hand, makes the learner tired and overloaded, decreasing the likelihood that they will actually remember what was said. This is where something like online training can be beneficial, because it allows employees to learn in short five to ten minute bursts.
Give them permission to fail early
Dr. Oakley suggests structuring your training like so: first, giving your employees a general written overview of what they will be learning, so they have the bigger picture. Then, giving them the opportunity to observe an example – either a live demonstration or a video lesson. And then, asking them to do it themselves.
Now, this part is crucial – in the process of doing the task, they need to be given permission to fail.
In a book called Learning, remembering and believing: enhanced human performance from the National Research Council, it is said that:
In general, people learn by making and correcting mistakes. Conditions during training that serve as crutches for performance – keeping multiple aspects of the task environment fixed and predictable, for example – are conditions that, in effect, deny learners the opportunity to learn what they don't know. Rather than learning from errors in the training context, those errors are deferred to some post-training real-world environment in which performance matters.
In other words, your training environment should simulate the demands of the real-world as much as possible, so your employees can make mistakes, see that they have made those mistakes, and then correct them. Consider role-playing difficult and unpredictible situations to see how much your employees remember under pressure.
Test their recall
Experts agree that self-testing and repetition are two of the most effective study techniques. So invest in tools that allow your employees to regularly quiz themselves. This will reveal their mistakes to them, shattering any illusions of competence, while also drilling the correct answers into their long-term memories.
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