The Curious Case of Cross Training Employees

cross training employees
Our latest research investigates which learning and development opportunities are most commonly offered, which opportunities employees utilize most, and which opportunities they appreciate or prefer most.

On the surface, there weren’t any groundbreaking discoveries. However, we didn’t stop there: I dug deeper by comparing engagement levels across individuals who preferred the five most utilized learning and development opportunities; and a rather curious set of results emerged. 


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In our coaching employees for high performance ebook, we show that the following five learning and development opportunities are the most utilized by employees:

  1. Online Training Sessions / Webinars
  2. Coaching from Manager
  3. Classroom-Style Learning
  4. Coaching from Peer
  5. Cross-Training

Of these top utilized activities (and seven other common learning and development opportunities not listed above), we asked employees to select the three activities they most prefer or appreciate. When I linked employee engagement level with preferences, three specific activities showed large differences (> 5 percentage points), shown in the chart below.


Respondents were more engaged when they preferred coaching from their manager or coaching from peers. Employees who are more engaged often feel more connected to their jobs, teams, and organizations, which can translate to increased levels of trust, transparency, etc.

So, we can assume, that employees who are more engaged likely prefer coaching from others because they trust their managers and peers to be transparent, that they’re dependable, that they’ll offer good and actionable guidance, and so forth.

But things take an interesting turn when we look at cross-training. Here’s why these results are so…curious: employees who preferred cross training were less engaged.

Those cross-training results initially seemed somewhat perplexing, but I believe I’ve come up with a pretty solid explanation. Employee engagement is the strength of mental and emotional connection that employees feel toward their places of work; lower engagement means a weaker connection.

If employees who have a weaker connection to their jobs and teams prefer or appreciate cross-training, this suggests that those employees want something new. In other words, those employees want to job craft to make their jobs a better fit for their skills and interests, they want to enhance their skillset for promotions or taking on more responsibility, or they want to work with another team.   


Key Takeaways: Don’t Force Employee Coaching, and Allow for Cross-Training

Employee coaching from managers or peers is awesome, and elsewhere we’ve laid out reasons for coaching. Yet as with all good things, there needs to be a warning label:


Employee coaching — whether from managers or peers — will likely be ineffective or outright backfire if there isn’t mutual trust, understanding, and transparency between all relevant parties.

If employees are disengaged, they probably feel disconnected from their teams, which may promote the creation of walls rather than bridges if those employees are told to coach each other. And this is especially true if employees don’t have a strong relationship with their manager. So if coaching isn’t part of your culture, ease employees into it rather than jumping straight in.

Likewise, if coaching is already used in your organization but seems ineffective, it may be the case that coworkers need to engage in trust or team building before those coaching efforts can become fruitful. Admittedly, this is one of those tricky “chicken and egg” situations – does engagement come first and coaching effectiveness follows, or does effective coaching enhance engagement? Likely both, but the specific complexities come down to the individual, team, and organization.

Relatedly, employees may feel disengaged because their current job or team isn’t fulfilling some set of preferences.


Cross-training employees can enhance their fit with other jobs or teams, so it is crucial as an outlet for employees to explore their potential by finding out what an organization has to offer.

I’ve too often seen disengaged employees thought of as lost causes because they “don’t fit.” Well, that’s exactly what cross-training is designed for: to expose employees to a variety of skills, functions, and roles so they can not only be substitutes for others, but also to see what else the organization has to offer. Although perhaps too idealistic, I believe employees shouldn’t be locked into narrow jobs or be forced to remain in teams that fundamentally do not mesh with what they want.



Want to read more research on how learning and development can impact employee engagement and performance? Download our report below. New Ebook! Coaching Employees for High Performance

Published April 18, 2017 | Written By Dan Harris, Ph.D.