7 quality training techniques to deal with disruptive managers

Simon Thiessen

Simon Thiessen About The Author

Feb 13, 2015 5:19:00 PM

Managers who test your training skills


In past articles I have written about your responsibility as a learning facilitator to manage disruptive participants and create a positive learning culture in your training room.

But what about when the main offender is one of the senior managers in the group? If you talk with them privately are they likely to resist or could it create a confrontation with them?

If you use all of your highly developed quality training strategies in the actual training room are they likely to respond positively or could they continue with their disruptive behaviour, undermining your credibility and authority and creating a cultural benchmark that will devalue the day?

Who is paying the bill? 

Iquality_training_pay_bill.jpgf the disruptive participant is the manager who organised the training, you may also feel torn between your responsibilities as a facilitator and having to confront the person who may be paying your bill.

Remember, this is also the person who may decide whether to use you for future training opportunities and certainly someone who have a voice within the organisation.


Doing nothing is not an option

Employees look to their managers for guidance on standards in every aspect of work – the model they provide is often the ceiling on their people’s own behaviour. This is no different in the training room. The way the manager engages in the training will be a significant factor in establishing the ‘way we do things around here’ – the culture in that training environment.

If you allow a manager to behave in a disruptive way without intervening, it sends a clear message about the standards both you and they will accept from other participants. It also makes it very clear what sort of value each of you puts on the learning that should occur in that training room.

The things people do!

training_techniques_for_managers_who_disrupt-955275-editedOver the years I have seen some amazing training room behaviour from managers:

  • In a session on cultural change conducted for a large private school, the principal (whose idea it was to do the training) argued with every point. Their pedantic behaviour really frustrated other participants and the common theme in the course feedback was, ‘this could be really good if management would buy in’.
  • Working for a large manufacturing company, we had started a session on time. After about ten minutes, a senior manager arrived late, made a great show of entering the room and finding a seat and then unfolded and read the newspaper in the most ostentatious way possible
  • A senior manager in a government agency, sitting at a table in the front centre of the room, kept answering his phone – at the table – and having loud conversations
  • Another manager who had actually booked the training, and who knew the basis of the course, undermined the whole topic by attacking the credibility of the research underpinning the course material
  • In an experiential activity conducted for a police force, a team of senior managers constantly cheated by stealing from and sabotaging other teams
  • In a major media company, the senior manager who had organised the training demonstrated how clever she was by answering every question – and by correcting anyone else who had the courage to propose and answer

In over twenty years as a corporate trainer and learning facilitator, this is just the tip of the iceberg! I have dealt with some situations well; others I have reflected and felt that I could have responded differently.

However, all of these situations have helped me refine my training techniques and training skills. Now I am passing on tried and tested active learning strategies that you can adopt to handle challenging participants in your facilitation session. 

The difference with a disruptive manager

On one level, we need to treat the disruptive manager just as we would any disruptive participant. The same training techniques and skills are valid. However, there is one critical difference in my approach: I move from subtle to really blunt much more quickly.

Why? Two reasons:

  1. They are having much more impact than other participants would and therefore need to be dealt with more quickly
  2. They are often more robust and used to dealing with things more directly. Subtlety often doesn’t work!

Seven ways to deal with disruptive managers

As I reflect on the situations that I have handled well, these are some of the quality training strategies that have worked when I talk to these managers one on one or as part of the group discussion.

1. Direct discussion conflict_resolution_in_workplace.jpg

Talk to them individually about their concerns. This could be as part of the group discussion – Bob, you seem to have some strong reservations about this. Would you like to expand on them?

It could also happen privately – Jenny, you seem to have strong issues with what we are doing in the course. Can you tell me what that is about?

2. Confront (respectfully)

Ask them a really direct question about their behaviour. I asked one manager whether he was arguing the point because he genuinely disagreed or because it made him uncomfortable.

In another session for a major hotel chain, I asked a manager – do you think you are in danger of reinterpreting everything we are saying to fit with an agenda of your own?

Because I asked both of these in a respectful but direct way, they worked – but they were risks. My assessment was that the greater risk was allowing the behaviour to continue.

3. Responsibility and guilt

Emphasise the influence they have on the attitudes of the people in the room. Whether their people have a day wasted or a day of learning, depends to a large degree on their perception of how management feels about the training.

Get really blunt with them about the impact they are having and appeal to them as a Leader as Modelyou set benchmarks and standards for your people.

4. Ego – strategy 1

Again, this is about the influence they have on the room. I have really played this one up with a few managers: with your track record and position, you may not need this training but your people almost certainly do. After all, they haven’t achieved what you have.

In reality, the manager I am talking to probably needs the training more than anyone. Hopefully by getting them to manage their training room behaviour, they stop having a negative influence on other participants and they may even accidentally learn something!

5. Ego – strategy 2

quality_training_-_ego.jpgEngage them as an expert by recognising their skills and knowledge. This should make them less threatened by you and by the learning you are presenting.

You could do this during the training: John, this is an area where I think you have a lot of experience. Can you help us with some strategies here?

You could also have a conversation during a break: Mary, in the next session I plan to cover XYZ. Would you be happy to share some of your knowledge on that topic?’

6. Do a deal

This is really about reaching an agreement with the manager to stop disrupting the learning for everyone – but that you will meet with them one on one to discuss any issues or concerns they have. 


This is a fine line – I don’t want them to stop participating altogether – I just want them to behave in a socially responsible and aware manner.

Whenever, I have this discussion with a manager, I follow up within a day of the session and confirm that I am available to meet. Very often, they don’t even reply – or reply and tell me how busy they are and that they will ‘get back to me’. Very few do – and I don’t follow up. In reality, they were less concerned about the training content than they were about making a show of their importance or cleverness.

7. Set them free

On a few rare occasions, a manager has had such a negative impact on a training session that I have suggested they spend their day doing something else.

To help them make an exit that doesn’t undermine the training, I suggest they invent an emergency - something that needs their immediate attention. If they leave during the break, I tell the group that they have had to go and deal with something. The initial surprise soon turns into enjoyment at the changed training room dynamic. After, fifteen minutes, they are forgotten and learning escalates.

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