Are Your Leadership Trainings Tone Deaf?

One of my most formative experiences with an outside leadership "consultant" occurred while I was working in a university setting.  The dean of the college had been replaced and had some fantastic ideas about how to move the college in a new direction.  Unfortunately the dean’s change management strategies were not quite as effective as what the college required.  Most specifically, the dean failed to communicate an emotional need for change.  The dean also failed to build an effective coalition of the existing faculty to assist in implementing the new vision for the future of the college.  This resulted in some faculty “rebelling” which led to a very negative work environment for many faculty and staff members within the college.

The dean’s response was to call in a “trainer” to establish “communication norms” within the various working groups within the college.  Unfortunately this particular trainer approached the situation from a “feel good can’t we all just get along and play nice” perspective and subsequently seemed to ignore many of the power dynamics that were occurring within the college.  After multiple training sessions (many of which went unattended by the exact individuals who were actually causing significant problems within the college) the entire group was left even more frustrated and upset.  Some individuals were even calling for a “no-confidence” vote on the dean’s leadership. 

Unfortunately this scenario is far from unique. According to the Harvard Business Review (2016), leadership training activities are notoriously ineffective; yet in the United States corporations spend close to $160 Billion dollars on employee training and education.  Many trainers fail to utilize a systemic approach in their trainings.  For example, one of the most commonly held logic flaws of trainers is the belief that problems of organizational behavior stem from individual choices and behaviors.  However, we know that these issues are more often the result of poorly designed and ineffectively managed systems. When changes are made to how these systems are managed and constructed we know that individual behaviors often change significantly (seemingly  automatically) and dramatically.

In the scenario above the trainer and the executives within the college failed to obtain an accurate assessment from the employees about the dynamics that were occurring in individual work groups.  This type of assessment and analysis is essential to properly understanding and strategizing about how to change negative behaviors that are occurring within the workplace.  This type of information can be obtained through candid one-on-one conversations, surveys, observations, and requests for anonymous analyses.  This particular group was highly skilled (with many of the individuals involved held PhDs in a leadership field). However, few of the individuals within this group were actually consulted about what their needs were and what dynamics they felt were occurring in their workplace.  The result was a training process that was relatively ineffective and actually exacerbated tensions instead of having its intended effect of  improving the work environment. 

Beers, Finnstrom & Schrader (2016) suggest the following steps for identifying the need for and implementing development trainings:

1.     Is the leadership aligned around a clear, inspiring strategy and set of values?

2.     Has the team collected unvarnished employee feedback about barriers to effectiveness and performance—including senior managers’ own behavior?

3.     Has the team redesigned its organization, management systems, and practices to address the problems revealed by that diagnosis?

4.     Is HR offering consulting and coaching to help employees learn on the job so that they can practice the new attitudes and behaviors required of them?

5.     Do training programs properly support the change agenda and will each unit’s leadership and culture provide fertile ground for it?

The case above highlights the importance of clear communication and the need for leaders to solicit candid feedback from employees regarding relational dynamics that are occurring in the work place.  It also serves as a cautionary tale for trainers because a failure to accurately assess the systemic dynamics occurring within an organization can significantly exacerbate existing tensions. 

At 2Human Strategies we believe that employees often provide the MOST valuable information regarding their own workplace.  We seek to consult these employees as experts who can inform administrators about their needs.  When leaders are able to understand these needs, they can often align their vision and motivational message with employee needs, thereby promoting an exciting discursive potential for growth and improvement. 


Beer, M., Finnstrom, M. & Schrader, D. (2016). Why Leadership Training Fails—and What do Do About It. Harvard Business Review. 94(10) pp. 50-57.      


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