Better management, not endless training, will solve our business ills

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An overworked friend recently warned her boss that her team was running out. In response, HR sent them all to a mindfulness course. This only added to the backlog when they returned to their desks. “What I really need,” she said, “is more staff.”

Training has become the panacea for all business ills, the default answer to improving productivity, retaining talent and even taming the wage-price spiral. But it looks more and more like a substitute for good management. I keep coming across people who are forced to attend workshops that aren’t relevant to their job or seem like a sign of virtue. As one weary charity worker told me, “we always have to say the course was wonderful, otherwise we get treated like crap”.

Dull training is part of modern life. We’ve all clicked on deceptively happy compliance videos while scrolling through our phones or been lectured by some well-meaning person about, fundamentally, kindness. But as the world spends more and more on “learning and development” — $370 billion in 2019 — I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to find out what actually works.

A Harvard Business Review article claims that most organizations don’t measure the effectiveness of their training. One trainer describes his sessions as “spray and pray: we don’t know what will stick”.

Theodore Agnew, the former UK civil servant, asked in 2020 how much Whitehall had spent on training, only to be told 16 months later: ‘we think we’re spending £190-500m but we don’t don’t know what courses we buy or how good they are”. It may be because training is now a catch-all, as much to protect managers as to teach Python, or GDPR, coding.

I recently met a group of HR professionals who are finding it as challenging as everyone else to navigate the demands of hybrid working, digital transformation, and promoting wellness. They complained that some managers demand training every time performance drops, even if the problem is actually culture or lack of clarity.

At an accounting firm, a senior manager demanded that HR deliver courses on managing people remotely – when he could have just phoned and asked how the staff were doing.

Nobody likes confrontation. At a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult to expose sloppy work practices, it may be easier to ask for training. But train for what? Even as leadership development has become big business, trust in leaders has declined, according to a new report from behavioral science firm MindGym.

There is no shortage of leadership models – Authentic, Agile, Servant, Charismatic, etc. – but “the more we spend, the more the results deteriorate”. That’s partly, says MindGym, because of outdated assumptions that the CEO can fix everything; and also because of a tendency to focus on empowering staff, rather than holding them accountable.

The flip side is that CEOs themselves are now held accountable for much more than share price. In 2018, in a historic first, more corporate CEOs were ousted for ethical transgressions in their company than for financial performance or board disputes.

It’s no surprise that Starbucks and Sephora responded to the bad headlines by ordering company-wide diversity training; or that BMW and Ford did the same after losing discrimination lawsuits. KPMG is now training its staff not to talk about ski trips, in case they make others feel left out.

How this fits into the craze of “going all in on the job”, I’m not sure. But if people are too obtuse to realize what makes others uncomfortable, they surely need a sharp word from their boss or mother, not an outsourced seminar.

It’s easy to ridicule classes that involve lessons from actors or jugglers. But it could be the lifeblood. One of the best team building activities I have attended was a paintball day at McKinsey where the IT guys beat us hands down and earned a new level of recognition and respect . It wasn’t advertised as “training” – it was an optional perk – but I’m sure it boosted our productivity.

It’s a good idea to make us all more aware of how discrimination can be perpetuated. But early studies of unconscious bias training suggest that much of it has little effect, or may even backfire. Interviews with employers by sociologists from Harvard and Tel Aviv universities revealed that some diversity training has actually reduced diversity. Critics suggest leaders need to change the way they coach and recruit, not return “privilege scores”.

Augmented and virtual reality can transform learning, but many online learning modules just don’t stick. A friend has had annual workplace fire training for the past 20 years, but still can’t remember what color extinguisher to use – what author Ralph H Kilmann calls “the effect of three days of washing”..

His solution is to come back to people at regular intervals after class and ask them to write if they’ve started doing something different, which seems eminently sensible.

Training makes organizations feel like they are doing something. It makes everyone feel good – except maybe the people who have to attend the workshops. My witty friend calls to say that her best staff member is going on maternity leave. “Next time,” she said, “I want a class that shows me how to clone myself.”

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