In the US, companies spend billions of dollars annually on employee training and education; about US$160 billion in the US and US$356 billion internationally according to figures from 2015. However, the investment is not paying off, as people return to their workplace and continue with the same habits and dismiss their training months after the company has made the investment.

When leaders or teams attend training camps, they learn many new tools and strategies that they find inspiring or helpful. They give positive feedback and even work hard to integrate what they have learned.

However, over time when managers are asked to reassess, oftentimes they thought little had changed as a result of the training. 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.

As a change strategy, training does not work. Without the right structures and organisation in place, the people who are working hard to make the change will only find disappointment as those above them remain rigid or those below them do not support the ambition. Only one in four senior managers reports that training has been critical to business outcomes.

Despite this, senior executives and their HR teams continue to invest in training, year after year, in an effort to trigger organizational change. What they actually need is an organisational framework to hang their newly learned skills on. Context sets the stage for success or failure, so it’s important to design managerial processes first and then support employees with individual development tools such as coaching and skills education.

What Goes Wrong

While there are courses and skills training that is focused on the acquisition of tangible or measurable output. Managerial training is often aimed at achieving a more harmonised working environment with higher productivity and improved staff retention rates. Leadership training is not about the functionality of the workplace in terms of measurable goals, but about the organisation and interpersonal relationships within that company.

As early as the 1950s, researchers noted problems with training programs during the seminal Ohio State leadership studies. They found that one program had succeeded in changing frontline supervisors’ attitudes about how they should manage, but a follow-up study revealed that most supervisors had then regressed to their pre-training views. The only exceptions were those whose bosses practised and believed in the new leadership style that the program was designed to teach.

The problem is that training programs do not facilitate organizational change: Companies that try to launch major transformations by training hundreds or thousands of employees across many sectors to behave differently fail. The problem is that even well-trained and motivated employees cannot apply their new knowledge and skills when they return to their sector, which has entrenched and established ways of doing things. Individuals can do little to change an entire system or culture of behaviour.

When the researchers looked at a corporate training program aimed at improving problem solving and communication between managers and subordinates, they discovered that success varied. Improvements were greater when the company had already developed a “psychologically safe” climate in which subordinates felt free to speak up.

It proves that the real change that needs to take place is within whole organisations, rather than simply one team or one manager.
However, there is still much resistance to the idea of organisations training on the various leadership styles and knowing when and how to implement them to elicit the best from employees. While smaller businesses are more able to be flexible and trust is usually fast established, larger organisations often grow without too much focus on the cultural development of the business. Sometimes an authoritarian leader, needed to ensure the business survived hard times, creates a culture of fear and mistrust without realising that it has spread through the business like an illness, turning great employees into disgruntled workers and breeding a bad name for itself in talent pools.

Dismissing Flawed Assumptions About Capability Development

Many HR managers and others find it difficult or impossible to confront senior leaders and their teams with an uncomfortable truth: A failure to execute on strategy and change organizational behaviour is rooted not in individuals’ deficiencies but, rather, in the policies and practices created by top management. Those are the things to fix before training can succeed longer-term. It’s much easier for HR to point to employees’ competencies as the problem and to training as a clear solution. That’s a message senior leaders are receptive to hearing.

Accepting Change

Companies consistently struggle with:

  • Unclear strategy direction and values, which often leads to conflicting priorities
  • Senior executives who don’t work as a team and haven’t committed to a new direction or acknowledged necessary changes in their own behaviour
  • Top-down or laissez-faire leadership styles, which can prevent honest conversation
  • A lack of coordination across businesses, functions, or regions due to poor organizational design
  • Inadequate leadership time and attention given to talent issues
  • Employees’ fear of telling the senior team about obstacles to the organization’s effectiveness

These problems block the systemic changes needed to make training and education programs effective. When employees are not given the opportunity to participate in the organisation in which they work, or they are dismissed by decision-makers, organisations tend to lose interest from some of their most promising employees who go on to achieve high levels of success elsewhere.

When senior management refuse to acknowledge that they are part of a larger team any training strategies or leadership programs put in place to improve morale or other company issues will fail. For organisations to make the most of their investment in change, they first need to take the following initiatives:

  • The senior team needs to clearly define company values and conceive of an inspiring strategic direction.
  • After gathering candid, anonymous observations and insights from managers and employees, the team needs to diagnose barriers to strategy execution and learning. Then the organization’s roles, responsibilities, and relationships need to be redesigned to overcome those barriers and motivate change.
  • Day-to-day coaching and process consultations will help people become more effective in that new design.
    The organization adds training where needed.
  • Success in changing behaviour is gauged using new metrics for individual and organizational performance.
  • Systems for selecting, evaluating, developing, and promoting talent are adjusted to reflect and sustain the changes in organizational behaviour.
  • If your company is committed to understanding how leadership training can make a difference, you need to first assess the head of the company. Often it is as simple as recognising that a business has grown and formed with no direction or values in place that employees can relate to. Employees like to have a clear understanding of what can be expected in terms of hierarchy, advancement opportunities, quality of work and even acceptable attitudes or behaviours, such as casual language and clothing or using titles and wearing suits.