Training has only a limited role as a tool of change

Many managers, aided and abetted by the training community, act as if when you have a behaviour issue, all you need to do is name the issue and stick the word ‘training’ on the end. You will now have your solution. E.g.

  • We have a sales issue – let’s get some sales training
  • We have a communication issue – let’s get some communication training
  • We have a values issue – let’s get some values training.

You get the idea. The problem is that this kind of lazy diagnosis and prescription rarely works, for two reasons:

  1. generic solutions don’t fit specific problems
  2. training can only help when the issue is one of a skills deficiency.

For example, I’ve seen sales training attempted when the problem was variously:

  • timid sales people unsuited to the role
  • outdated products which customers were ignoring in favour of the competition
  • a skewed incentive system
  • a sales manager who was playing favourites.

Training is totally ineffective in these common situations. But trainers are happy to take a fee, and too many training managers are happy if they can take their budget and fill up enough squares on their year planner. Just as turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, trainers are unlikely to tell you that training won’t help when you want to change behaviour.

What to do instead? The first thing is to ask Robert Mager’s classic question: “Could they do it if their lives depended on it?” i.e. if, with a gun to their heads, your people could:

  • ask for the order,
  • communicate helpfully and collaboratively,
  • behave in accordance with your values,

but they still don’t, then training will not help one jot. They already know how – it’s not lack of skill that’s stopping them. You may as well take the training fees and burn them in the car park. You need to find out what or who is really in the way and deal with those blocks.

High-potential starting points:

  • informal incentives
  • influential role-models who are conspicuously thriving even though they violate company values (see How to Undermine Your Culture).
  • outdated beliefs about the ‘way we do things here’,
  • a divisive individual you should have sorted out ages ago…


© Andrew Bass 2013