Better management, not endless training, will solve our corporate ills
An overworked friend recently warned her boss that her team was burning out. In response, HR sent them all on a mindfulness course. This only increased the backlog of work when they returned to their desks. “What I actually need,” she said, “is more staff”.
Training has become the panacea for every corporate ill, the default answer to improving productivity, retaining talent, and even taming the wage-price spiral. But it increasingly feels like a substitute for good management. I keep meeting people who are being forced to attend workshops which aren’t relevant to their job, or seem like virtue-signalling. As one weary charity worker said to me, “we always have to say the course was wonderful, or we get treated like s**t”.
Some lacklustre training is part of modern life. We’ve all clicked through falsely jolly compliance videos while scrolling on our phones or been lectured by a well-meaning person about, basically, being kind. But as the world spends more and more on “learning and development” — US$370bn in 2019 — I have found it surprisingly hard to discover what actually works.
An article in Harvard Business Review claims that most organisations don’t measure how effective their training is. One trainer describes his sessions as “spray and pray: we don’t know what will stick”.
Theodore Agnew, the former minister for the UK civil service, asked in 2020 how much Whitehall spent on training, to be told 16 months later: “we think we spend £190mn-£500mn, but we don’t know what courses we buy or how good they are”. Perhaps this is because training is now a catch-all, as much about protecting managers as it is about actually teaching Python coding, or GDPR.
I recently met a group of HR professionals who are finding it just as tough as everyone else to navigate the demands of hybrid working, digital transformation, and promoting wellbeing. They complained that some managers demand training whenever performance dips, even if the problem is actually culture, or lack of clarity.
At one accounting firm, a senior leader demanded that HR provide courses in managing remote staff — when he could have just got on the phone and asked how the staff were.
No one likes confrontation. In an era where it’s getting harder to call out sloppy working practices, it may be easier to call for training. But training in what? Even as leadership development has become big business, confidence in leaders has been falling, according to a new report by the behavioural science firm MindGym.
There is no shortage of leadership models — Authentic, Agile, Servant, Charismatic and so on — but “as we spend more, the results get worse”. That’s partly, MindGym says, 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 to account.
The flipside is that CEOs themselves are now held to account for far more than share price. In 2018, in a historic first, more corporate CEOs were ousted for ethical transgressions at their firms than financial performance or board tussles.
It’s hardly surprising that Starbucks and Sephora responded to bad headlines by ordering company-wide diversity training; or that BMW and Ford did the same after losing discrimination cases. KPMG is now training its staff not to talk about ski trips, in case they make others feel excluded.
How this fits with the craze for “bringing your whole self to work” I’m not sure. But if people are too obtuse to realise what makes others feel uncomfortable, they surely need a sharp word from their boss or their mother, not a contracted-out seminar.
It’s easy to lampoon courses which involve lessons from actors or jugglers. But that might be the vital element. One of the best team-building things I ever attended was a paintballing day at McKinsey, where the guys from IT beat the rest of us hands down, and won a new level of recognition and respect. It wasn’t billed as “training” — it was an optional perk — but I’ve no doubt it boosted our productivity.
It is 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 can even backfire. Employer interviews by sociologists at Harvard and Tel Aviv universities found that some diversity training has actually reduced diversity. Critics suggest that leaders must change how they mentor and recruit, not hand back “privilege scores”.
Augmented and virtual reality may transform learning, but many e-learning modules just don’t stick. One friend has had annual workplace fire training for the past 20 years, but still can’t remember which colour of fire extinguisher to use — what the author Ralph H Kilmann calls the “three day washout effect”.
His solution is to go back to people at intervals after the course, and ask them to write down whether they’ve started doing anything differently — which seems eminently sensible.
Training makes organisations feel as though they’re doing something. It makes everyone feel good — except possibly the people who have to actually sit through the workshops. My mindfulness friend rings to say that her best staff member is going on maternity leave. “Next time,” she says, “I want a course which shows me how to clone myself.” FINANCIAL TIMES
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Camilla Cavendish is a contributing editor and columnist for the Financial Times, and a former head of the Downing Street policy unit under Prime Minister David Cameron.