The question of the effectiveness of leadership training has been asked many, many times over the past 20 or 30 years. The answer is…
Yes, it can work…and no, it doesn’t work.
This dual answer may seem puzzling at first, but let me explain.
Leadership training, along with general employee skills training, works well when certain elements are clearly in place and practiced. Training does not work when those elements are omitted.
All training has the objective to impart specific knowledge, skills or tips to the participants, with the goal for participants to then apply this new knowledge and perform their roles with greater productivity or efficiency. Simple enough.
Yet studies consistently show knowledge transfer doesn’t last if new habits of application are not formed soon after the training has been delivered. Furthermore, the habits must be formed in a way which is applicable to a person’s specific role. Simply put, knowledge alone does not change anyone or make them achieve better performance. People change only when they have frequent opportunities to apply the learned knowledge in their daily lives.
It is the frequency of the application that creates new habits. This development is possible because of the unique processes that occur within our brains. You may be familiar with the term neural network. Our brains have the capacity to develop new neural networks as long as we are alive with a fully functioning brain.
Such networks deeply ingrain a particular habit with frequent application of the activity. If the new habit is not repeated many, many times, we don’t give our brains the opportunity to develop a wide and deep network. The more we apply new knowledge in real situations, the deeper and wider the neural network becomes.
Once these networks have become deep and wide, we can perform the activity or habit without even thinking about it. Remember when you were first learning to drive a car or type on a keyboard? I’m sure your proficiency at these things was sub-par at best—I know mine was.
Yet, over time, the more we practiced parallel parking or typing with 10 fingers, the easier it became. It became easier because the neural networks we were creating became deeper and wider. We had more experience applying new knowledge and this developed greater levels of both skills and self-confidence.
When we apply this understanding to leadership training or even employee skill training, we see that unless it has this necessary component of frequent knowledge application within the first few weeks and months, the effort will be largely a waste of time and money.
Along with frequency of application there are two other components necessary to enable the highest return on investment in training: reflection and feedback.
The participant must have the ability and time to reflect on the new knowledge and habit in order to make adjustments to the actual activity they perform. They must be able to conduct their own assessment of whether the new habit actually results in greater productivity, efficiency or insight. They must be willing to make slight adjustments to realize even greater results.
The next element is feedback. Unrecognized performance becomes extinct! Think of a child’s reaction when you make a big deal about something they accomplished. The child generally gets really excited and is happy to see the adult’s positive reaction. The positive reaction (feedback) encourages the child to do more of the activity simply because they enjoy experiencing the positive reaction. As I have often said to clients I coach on this topic, Adults are just kids in grown up bodies!
Those on our team will generally do more of what we as leaders praise them for doing. If we see a positive improvement in an activity or the creation of a new habit which is healthy and efficient, let the person know. They may not show outward signs of excitement for the recognition, yet inside you can be sure they are doing a happy dance!
If you have been disappointed with the results of the training you or your team have invested in, take a close look at the format of the training to see if the elements I’ve described are present. My guess would be one or more of the elements is missing. Knowledge alone doesn’t change people – it is the combination of knowledge application, adequate reflection, and receiving positive feedback which leads to consistent change and better results.
PS – All of the leadership training our company offers has the elements discussed here. While we can’t assume the role of each participant’s leader, we do provide an executive summary of key knowledge as well as suggest each participant review their key takeaways with their boss or supervisor within 48 hours of returning to their jobs. Let me help you or your company with an objective assessment of your current leadership training efforts and help to create a strong ROI for the money invested in these activities.