Sunday, October 2, 2016
Why Leadership Training Fails And What To Do About It - Part 1
Corporations are victims of the great training robbery. American companies spend enormous amounts of money on employee training and education—$160 billion in the United States and close to $356 billion globally in 2015 alone—but they are not getting a good return on their investment. For the most part, the learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things.
Consider the micro-electronic products division (MEPD) at a company we’ll call SMA, which one of us studied. SMA invested in a training program to improve leadership and organizational effectiveness. MEPD was one of the first business units to implement it, and virtually every salaried employee in the division attended.
Participants described the program as very powerful. For a whole week they engaged in numerous tasks that required teamwork, and they received real-time feedback on both individual and group behavior. The program ended with a plan for taking the learning back into the organization. Pre- and post-training surveys suggested that participants’ attitudes had changed.
A couple of years later, when a new general manager came in to lead the division, he requested an assessment of the costly program. As it turned out, managers thought little had changed as a result of the training, even though it had been inspiring at the time. They found it impossible to apply what they had learned about teamwork and collaboration, because of a number of managerial and organizational barriers: a lack of strategic clarity, the previous GM’s top-down style, a politically charged environment, and cross-functional conflict. “[The previous GM] had a significant impact on our organization, with all of us reflecting him in our managerial style,” a member of the division’s senior team explained during an interview. “We are all more authoritarian than before.”
As a change strategy, training clearly had not worked. It rarely does, as we have found in our research and teaching and in the advising we’ve done at dozens of companies. One manufacturer, for instance, suffered multiple fatalities at its operating plants despite a $20 million investment in a state-of-the-art center for safety training. Participants in corporate education programs often tell us that the context in which they work makes it difficult for them to put what they’re taught into practice.
Still, senior executives and their HR teams continue to pour money into training, year after year, in an effort to trigger organizational change. But what they actually need is a new way of thinking about learning and development. Context sets the stage for success or failure, so it’s important to attend to organizational design and managerial processes first and then support them with individual development tools such as coaching and classroom or online education.