Why leadership training doesn’t work (and what you can do about it)

How many times have you gone to a leadership development workshop, had a wonderful experience, left feeling great, and then went home and kept doing the same old thing?  Or, perhaps you kept up your new resolutions for a couple of months or weeks, and then went back to doing the same old thing.


Why does this happen so consistently? And why do we, knowing this, keep on sending people to training?


Learning these skills will not lead to doing these skills. That’s because, I’ll suggest, most of the leadership skills and insights being imparted through these events are, in the words of Ronald Heifetz, “adaptive” challenges rather than “technical” ones. A technical challenge is simply a matter of information and knowledge – if we simply understand the expectation or skill, we can produce it tomorrow. If you fully teach me how to construct a balance sheet, there is nothing to stop me from doing it.


An adaptive challenge is one that stretches who we are. It may be scary, or anxiety provoking, or call into question some deep value we hold.  Adopting new leadership behaviors requires a shift in mindset – we need to think about these behaviors differently, if we are to ever demonstrate them.


For example, at Teleos we teach leaders skills for influencing important stakeholders.  Many of the ingredients for a successful training experience would appear to be present. These leaders really want to influence more effectively, since that’s a key ingredient in accomplishing their goals. And, there’s a very clear set of behaviors that can be taught, which have been demonstrated to produce successful influencing outcomes. However, if we simply explain and demonstrate the skills, many leaders will never implement those behaviors after they walk out of the training room. Furthermore, they will get really angry that we even have the nerve to suggest that they should actually do these things! Why? Because each of them will perceive those conversations as threatening to some goal that’s important to them in some way – it might be potentially relationship-damaging, or risk compromising some favorite approach.


When you dig into the thinking processes that shape people’s willingness to change their leadership behaviors, here are some of the concerns that come up:


  •  How do I think other people are evaluating my effectiveness?


  • From what actions and outcomes do I get my personal satisfaction?


  • Which behaviors will lead to the outcomes I most value?


  • What behaviors will strengthen my working relationships?


  • What behaviors are most likely to allow me to implement my preferred alternative?


Once you understand the role of mindset in implementing new leadership behaviors, you can see several ways to increase the likelihood that leadership training will stick.


  • Include role-plays and practices in workshops. This is not just about practicing – it’s about using this practice very particularly, to surface the discomforts and fears involved in using the skills.  These fears will be different for each individual.


  • Include a plan for trying out the new behaviors back home in a relatively safe way, and use that attempt to test whether the feared outcome really does ensue, or whether perhaps some not-so-bad, or even good, outcome actually comes of the effort.


  • Follow training with back-home coaching that’s intended to surface and overcome mindset-related challenges as they emerge.


  • Welcome resistance. Resistance is your friend, because it means that you are right over the target of the relevant beliefs and assumptions that need to be unpacked in order for sustainable change to occur.

What do you think? Can you think back to the leadership training insights that you never implemented when you got back to work, and consider what elements of your mindset may have gotten in the way?

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