November 18, 2014
Mandatory training courses
Frequently managers invite employees by e-mail to a training course and add to their text in a rather strict tone that attendance is mandatory for everyone. This is usually well-intended. The reason why they do this is to underline the importance of the topic and to motivate employees to attend the training course. And probably, this way, they will indeed accomplish that most employees will attend.
However, what managers do not realize is that employees usually find it rather unpleasant to be coerced into doing something. Usually, it undermines their perception of autonomy and their motivation for the topic. If the training course is mandatory they may be absent not because they find the topic interesting or important but because their participation is obligatory ("This topic is probably so boring that they have to make attendance mandatory!"). Implicitly, they may also experience the fact that it being mandatory is a sign of distrust in their motivation ("If we don't make it mandatory they will probably try to get out of it!").
In short: the mandatory character can decrease the intrinsic motivation for the topic and put undue pressure on the relationship between managers and employees. The reverse is also true. If one says 'yes' after you realize you could have said 'no', your motivation is greater (see this article which supports this claim: Having the Option to Do Nothing Increases Commitment). Perhaps it would be going too far to say that you should never make a training course mandatory. Perhaps there are training courses about topics which have to do with legal obligations of safety regulations which should indeed be made mandatory. If that is the case, it is wise to explain very clearly why that is really necessary.
It can be argued that in most cases it is prudent to make attendance to training programs voluntary. If this occurs the quality of the motivation of the participants will probably be better. Voluntary participation generally doesn't work worse. It generally works better, as is the case in this example:
Management announced that training courses would be organized for employees who wanted to start working with approach X quickly. At first, these training courses would be facilitated by external trainers and later on by internal trainers. Attendance to the training courses would be on a voluntary basis because management thought that making them mandatory would not be congruent with the autonomy-supportive character of approach X. As the project proceeded the interest in the training course grew and more and more employees wanted to participate. The news that approach X worked pleasantly and effectively spread out quickly through the organization. And, although there was no coercion whatsoever to participate in the training courses, management did expect that employees would started using approach X, either through training or through self-study.