Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström, and Derek Schrader for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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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.

Only one in four senior managers report that training was critical to business outcomes.

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.

A Closer Look at What Goes Wrong

Education with the objective of individual growth is worthy in its own right, of course, and people are eager to acquire knowledge and skills that will help them advance in their careers. However, the primary reason senior executives and HR invest in management training is to make their leaders and organizations more effective, and results on that front have been disappointing. Three-quarters of the nearly 1,500 senior managers at 50 organizations interviewed in 2011 by CEB were dissatisfied with their companies’ learning and development function. Only one in four reported that it was critical to achieving business outcomes. Decades’ worth of studies show why it isn’t working, but, sadly, that understanding has not made its way into most companies.

Researchers noted problems with training programs as early as the 1950s, 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 practiced and believed in the new leadership style the program was designed to teach.

Then, in the 1980s, one of us helped conduct a study showing that training programs did not facilitate organizational change: Companies that tried to launch major transformations by training hundreds or thousands of employees across many units to behave differently lagged the only company (in a sample of six) that didn’t kick-start its transformation this way. The problem was that even well-trained and motivated employees could not apply their new knowledge and skills when they returned to their units, which were entrenched in established ways of doing things. In short, the individuals had less power to change the system surrounding them than that system had to shape them.

The idea that organizational systems—which define roles, responsibilities, and relationships—have a strong impact on individuals’ mindsets and behavior is supported by a number of studies. For instance, research by Seymour Lieberman, of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, found that unionized frontline workers promoted to supervisory roles adopted pro-management attitudes, and managers forced by a recession to return to frontline jobs reverted to pro-union and antimanagement attitudes. Further reinforcing the idea, Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg found that “star” analysts on Wall Street, as rated by an independent agency, did not perform as well or maintain their star status after moving to another firm. In fact, most of them never regained that status during the five-year study. Those who did had taken their teams—the systems that had helped them succeed—with them when they changed companies.

Those findings dovetail with research—by Amy Edmondson, of HBS, and Anita Woolley, of Carnegie Mellon—showing that organizations need “fertile soil” in place before the “seeds” of training interventions can grow. 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 across the company. Improvements were greater in units that had already developed a “psychologically safe” climate in which subordinates felt free to speak up.

From all these streams of research we’ve learned that education and training gain the most traction within highly visible organizational change and development efforts championed by senior leaders. That’s because such efforts motivate people to learn and change; create the conditions for them to apply what they’ve studied; foster immediate improvements in individual and organizational effectiveness; and put in place systems that help sustain the learning.

If the system does not change, it will set people up to fail.

A poor return on investment isn’t the only bad outcome of failed training initiatives. Employees below the top become cynical. Corporate leaders may fool themselves into believing that they are implementing real change through corporate education, but others in the organization know better, as we saw in the MEPD example. Why don’t leaders get this? For two reasons.

First, they implicitly view the organization as an aggregation of individuals. By that logic, people must be selected for and developed with the “right” knowledge, skills, and attitudes in order to improve the institution’s effectiveness and performance. So HR defines the requisite individual competencies according to the company’s strategy and then sells top management on training programs designed to develop those competencies, believing that organizational change will follow.

This widely embraced development model doesn’t acknowledge that organizations are systems of interacting elements: Roles, responsibilities, and relationships are defined by organizational structure, processes, leadership styles, people’s professional and cultural backgrounds, and HR policies and practices. And it doesn’t recognize that all those elements together drive organizational behavior and performance. If the system does not change, it will not support and sustain individual behavior change—indeed, it will set people up to fail.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Michael Beer is the Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School, a cofounder of TruePoint Partners, and author or coauthor of 12 books. His most recent book is Fit to Compete: Why Honest Conversations About Your Company’s Capabilities Are the Key to a Winning Strategy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2020).

Magnus Finnström is a director of TruePoint Partners, a research and consulting firm specializing in organizational transformation.

Derek Schrader is a director at TruePoint Partners, a research and consulting firm specializing in organizational transformation.

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