When a Failure of Leadership Morphs into a Training Solution

13 May

Guest post today by Dr Stewart Hase

You have almost certainly heard the joke about the drunk Irishman scrambling about on his all fours in the middle of the night under a streetlight. A policeman happens by and asks what the drunk is doing and receives the reply that he is looking for his car keys. The policeman helps for a while but the keys are nowhere to be found. The policeman asks the drunk where he may have seen them last and the drunk points vaguely into the pitch black darkness of the park over the road and says, ‘Somewhere over there.’ In exasperation the poor member of the constabulary asks why on earth they are wasting their time looking in this spot. The drunk replies, ‘ Don’t be stupid officer, this is where the light is.’So, it is with organisations that frequently seek solutions to problems in completely the wrong places. The most common of these is when the CEO or senior manager decides that a problem requires a training solution when in fact the place to look is with leadership. Training can be in the form of providing skills, team building, and even running leadership trainingfor the middle managers, who are seen as the potential weak link in the chain. This training can be elaborate and quite expensive.However, it is invariably ineffective. The keys will not be found because they are in a different place altogether. Nonetheless, senior management is able to tick the box and do a Pontius Pilate when things do not work out as expected and the problem persists. Employees can be such ungrateful wretches when they don’t embrace the valuable opportunities that have been provided!

There are many examples of this but I’ll choose something reasonably benign to illustrate. Take the case of Stress Management programs. Clearly staff are stressed to the maximum and cracks are starting to show in the organisation that can no longer be avoided. So, it is decided to hire a trainer and run some single or perhaps two-day programs on how to manage stress (or whatever organisational ailment has been identified).

As every consultant and trainer knows, the training is next to worthless and will not produce any long-lasting behaviour change at all. There will be a halo effect of a couple of weeks similar to that obtained from listening to Tony Robbins or Billy Graham but any change wears off and things go back to normal. This is particularly true if the situation to which the person goes back to does not change. Conversions do happen to a small number but they are often highly contextual and rely in other substantial changes occurring at the same time: this would involve becoming a disciple perhaps. Training does not often create these sorts of transformations.

The results, however, are satisfactory to the main players. The consultant becomes rich and the manager can tick the box, wash the hands and move on with a satisfied smirk.

The real solution for this problem, and many others for that matter, is a need for good leadership. Problems are often systems based rather than a lack of skill on the part of employees. The stress problem is often about the workplace and a need to redesign work: to do things in a different way. But CEOs are reluctant to go down this path and display some real leadership by tackling the hard stuff.: the more complex. Instead they go for the simple, but ineffective, solution. Naturally enough I guess given human nature but a failure of leadership nonetheless.

There are many other examples and some have to do with a rather less obvious leadership failure. Often I have been asked to mediate with either individuals or even whole teams who are in conflict or ‘being difficult’. In many cases the situation has come about because of a lack of action on the part of managers: mostly action was required early, when the problem is developing., but does not occur for a host or reasons.

Good leadership requires time, commitment to people and work. It means being involved with employees and relationship building. Then, when things start to go wrong there is early identification and subsequent action to set things right. This demands participation by staff and a certain democratic state of mind on the part of the manager, which is also not easy to procure. All of this needs skill and a willingness that goes beyond a focus on technical issues in the manufacture of whatever widgets the organisation produces.

I was recently involved with an organisation in which the pas de deux between consultant and manager was different. The initial problem was painted as a team that were ‘playing up’ and acting unsafely in what was an inherently dangerous workplace. When the issue was analysed in consultation with management, and in more detail, it was obvious that the ‘training solution’ of safety training that had been the initial brief was barking up the wrong tree. The training program we had designed was quickly dispatched to the scrap heap. Instead we undertook a modified search conference, which is a democratic and highly participative process that tackles workplace problems front on-with the troops. The result was that we unearthed a whole bunch of systemic problems that were creating the problem, at least in part, and which management committed to address. And the team committed to changing their behaviour and sticking to safety processes and procedures. At the same time, managers also committed to taking a more proactive role in pursuing safety goals. In effect, they were prepared to show leadership. A day of normal training would have been a dance of death.

So, the more enlightened consultant and manager can go beyond the ritualistic dance of the ‘training solution’. Instead they recognise that there may be a need to provide training but it needs to be accompanied by work redesign perhaps or system changes. Maybe it requires leading from the front and making sure that desired changes do in fact occur. This means the leader learning some psychological techniques for facilitating behavioural change in others. The manager may recognise that individual coaching involving self and employees will be more likely to address problems than running a workshop in a fancy location with a nice lunch. Sadly, the latter ticks the box in so many ways for the main players.

Dr Stewart Hase

Guest author Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma of Psychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.

Stewart blogs at stewarthase.blogspot.com

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