Why Sink or Swim rarely results in the business Swimming

Sink Or Swim.jpeg

Sink or Swim?

You may want to think again

As a fan of mentoring, sufficient training, and a full blown advocate of planning ahead, I think sink or swim is just awful. Are there times where it's necessary to an extent? Yes, but the rest of this article will not be nice about sink or swim. Although bias is a factor, there's really not a whole lot of upside I can even bring to the table but I'll highlight some of the alleged upsides you may have heard and then quickly dispel them as myths.

If you've established yourself as a competent sales manager, you don't need training on HOW to do your job, but rather how to use the software the new company you work at uses, a simple walk around the office and then training on the format of expectations and deliverables to your general manager or supervisor - and that's more "communication" than training. Supervisors, through policy and communication, should establish what they want to hear about and what they do not from you in this instance. In a lot of cases, you still have the manager that requires different things on different days, fails to communicate that and then berates their employees for underperforming to their unknown standards. This can be just as bad as "sink or swim".

Having said that, we're really looking at lower level, inexperienced workers doing heuristic tasks. We can quickly determine that algorithmic tasks are more beneficial with strict rules and directions  that can be written "Crayola" style.

But lets talk about the benefits of actually training your new people. Training should come from inside and out. In the Q12 survey by Gallup(R) "I know what is expected of me at work" and "This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow" relate to training, growth, and expectations. We can directly derive a correlation between training and engagement. The sink or swim environment does not produce the type of engagement that training and actively "watering your flowers" gives. PERIOD.


"We're so busy that I just can't spend time training someone" 
"I'm not a very good 'teacher' and think you'd do better learning on your own"

Lets talk about these excuses and why they're absolute BULL. First, if you're busy, delegate to your next in line so that they can practice your current role, a role they will soon take over when you get promoted or leave. That's not hard, if you don't have that person, it's your fault. Second, the faster this person learns everything you need them to learn, the less "busy" your office will be because you have an EFFICIENT set of hands on the issues. It's simply logical to prepare someone to do something you want done correctly.

Ok, but you're still not a great trainer. Well if you know the subject matter, and you're driven enough to be a manager, you should be resourceful enough to google some training techniques and become a good trainer. If you're not resourceful enough to use google to learn a new skill, your leadership also needs to train you. There are many firms that offer a Train the Trainer course (my firm included). So that's not the only reason for this excuse.

The second reason someone would use this excuse is because they were never trained and they feel that the sink or swim principle applies to everyone. We all know that everyone learns differently. When my unit deployed Afghanistan, we were told to listen to training from the outgoing unit, and then if necessary make changes AFTER THEY WERE GONE. We listened and learned from those who had been in a combat zone in the most recent year, they had the most updated information, and did the same adaptation throughout the year to meet the needs of the tactical environment. We in turn passed on 2009's information to the incoming relief for 2010. Give your employee the information, and then the autonomy to do their own thing afterward. 

THIRD; yes there's an ominous third reason to say you're not a very good teacher. Many people shirk the training duty because they simply don't want to be responsible when the new guy smurfs it up.

"Well I didn't train him!"

This comes from an environment of reprimand instead of learning opportunities. When the manager finds out that the employee is incorrectly performing a task, the supervisor gets called in to answer for his or her training techniques. Nobody wants this, not even the manager. So how do we fix this? There's a couple "best practices" for training standards, like written training protocols, demonstrating knowledge by practicing on the manager when learning to train, starting them "young", and having group refresher days.

The US Army doesn't train you to use a machine gun in basic training and just let you go for 4-20 years without any refreshers. I personally (as a private and specialist) trained the group (including Majors and Lieutenant Colonels) in the Browning M2, the MK-19, and M16-M4 weapon systems. As a young soldier I had to make a power point slideshow and stand up in front of the Troop and train people, then we all pulled out the weapons and practiced doing it. To apply this principle to your office grab a fresh newbie and make them train the group. Give them a timeframe and a little assistance, and all of the sudden, you've started to train your team to train others. it's a management skill. You can review the training material prior to the date and correct any mistakes, but you can also make sure everyone in the group has input after the class. We all learned to do it in business school, but most people don't practice presentations until they're already in a management position. 

So I promised some upsides to sink or swim. I also promised to dispel myth.

The Innovation Myth:

If they have to figure it out, they'll be more innovative and actually be more efficient than if I taught them how to do it. 
Yes and no. There's a definite value to unrefined parameters in allowing autonomy and innovation. Note I did not say "lack of training" causes this. In reality, lack of training produces spending a lot of time re-creating the wheel. The lost productivity in finding your own way, doesn't pass on the "best practices" and mostly doesn't allow for the employee to learn the skill to their full potential in most cases. 
Let's imagine that you want me to write a 5 page report, but I've never been trained in the use of the english language. This report is going to the customer and you the manager tell me that I need to make sure that my english is used properly. Now, being from West Texas, I think Y'all is a professional word but that's beside the point. I'm going to end up pulling my hair out having to google and go through St. Martin's Handbook for hours...
Now we know that it's not the business' responsibility to train english. Students in the US learn this in K-12 and possibly advance their knowledge and practice during higher education, but can you imagine being tasked with something and NOT having the skills to complete the task? You'd be doing more research than task. It limits most of our confidence, it's detrimental to the end product, and most of the time, it's being done after hours. 
So how exactly is this fully dispelled? Well, a few main reasons. Just like the basics of mathematics can help you in calculus or trigonometry, teaching someone the basics isn't detrimental. Help them get to the furthest reaches of knowledge and technique that the office has and then let them go. This allows for them to understand how the business works, why certain techniques are currently used (possibly even incorrectly) and allows this person to determine what is going on.

In the army we used to have a term (They still do, but I'm no longer in) "What Right Looks Like". This saying is meant to make sure you know what right looks like. Here's the end goal.

Have you ever seen the people that tie shoes all crazy? It looks exactly the same, performs the function of a tied shoe, and it took them 0.5 seconds because of Autonomy, Creativity, and Innovation. But they knew what "right looked like".


Nature vs. Nurture Myth:

I won't produce an empowered employee able to make key decisions by themselves.
There's definitely correct and incorrect ways to train, and the more you know about training, practice it, and see the results, the more you'll learn about what is effective and not effective. Sink or swim proposes that you'll make a better, more empowered subordinate out of the fire. Simply untrue. What sink or swim usually produces is an employee that is afraid to make a mistake or let the boss down. Mostly will hide mistakes instead of embrace and allow for a teachable moment in the office, and will also fail to communicate to the boss until the project or task is completed. Training your employee with what needs to be done and a standard practice of how it's typically done allows them to be proficient enough to do the work, after which time they can innovate the process and share with the office. It's far higher success rate in allowing the employee to have the mental tools to complete tasks and then innovate drastically increases productivity and engagement.

Surround yourself with complimentary skills not duplicate your own Myth

This "benefit" surprised me because logically, by not training your employees, you're effectively ensuring they duplicate the things that are already YOUR "best practices" at the expense of their own time and effort. By training your employees that you have best practices, and opening that communication of innovation, you can allow someone to circle back to you (The leader) with information they've learned outside of your organization. Everyone brings something to the table, so implying that if you train someone they won't bring a new and additional expertise to the team is absurd. Getting them engaged by opening communication, treating them like adult human beings, and improving their knowledge base and yours is essential to teamwork. 


Whether you think Training and equipping your employees with best practices is essential, or you personally believe that Sink or Swim is the best thing ever, Comment or send me feedback. 

Winning at training isn't always easy. If you'd like to learn more about my "Train the Trainer" or any other of my programs to assist your office in learning to work more efficiently, Contact me below.