Vapid training is often worse than not training at all, especially when it comes to management and leadership skills. So, why do companies keep hiring ineffective and substance-free trainers to waste their workers’ time? Probably because the boss’s impression of the class differs significantly from everyone else’s.
The announcement of mandatory ‘management’ training class always makes me wince. That may seem odd, since organisational behaviour and cultural analysis are the main thrust of my research and writing. I deeply enjoy these topics. I teach these topics. Whenever I discover a new article addressing ‘leadership,’ ‘management,’ ‘culture,’ or ‘behaviour’ I devour it. That being said, I’ve come to thoroughly despise many commercial ‘management’ training courses because they’re infuriatingly wrong in either their premises or their conclusions. I find that being forced to politely endure a poorly-designed course is immensely stressful; I usually have to spend the entire class fiercely concentrating on maintaining a bland expression while resisting the urge to argue.
It’s not just me. I’ve interviewed a bunch of mid-level and senior managers who admitted that commercial ‘team building’ and ‘personnel development’ classes make them want to scream. The consensus I’ve found supports my theory that it’s infuriating to be condescended to, especially when the presenter justifies their condescension with junk science, anecdotal evidence, or an astonishing misunderstanding of their own content. Speaking only for myself, I’ve found that many of the people who make their living ‘coaching’ corporate employees on behaviour issues are little more than snake oil salesmen peddling motivational posters instead of squiffy tonics.
In one memorable example, our company’s executives paid for every senior manager and above to attend a mandatory, day-long, ‘leadership’ seminar based on Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits book series. The people ‘facilitating’ the course were a pensioner who had never worked in anything resembling our industry and the pensioner’s perky young assistant who’d never held a real job in her life. Between the two, the presenters had zero understanding of our business, our culture, our problems, or our needs. They hadn’t even done basic research about our company before showing up to ‘help’ us. All they had to offer were PowerPoint slides overflowing with platitudes. At the end of the course, each attendee walked away with a paper workbook full of mimeographed nonsense while the consultants walked away with £20,000 of our ops budget.
That course proved to be the standard, not the exception when it came to ‘management training’ in that company. I sat through far too many courses just like it. The presenters varied their inspirational sources – swapping celebrity writers like Tom Peters, Peter Drucker, or “Dr Phil” for Covey – but they’d always pitch the exact same pithy aphorisms and spout the same empty ‘inspirational’ phrases. They admonish us to be more cheerful, to seek ‘win-win solutions,’ and to always remember that ‘there’s no “I” in “team!”’ It was – at best – insipid nonsense.
I’ve attended some dynamite Covey courses before, so it’s doubly-unfortunate that this course was so awful. Not only did it waste everyone’s time, but it likely put several students off of Covey-branded content for life.
I understand why some students get caught up in the moment; a presenters’ high-energy delivery tends to arouse a sympathetic resonance even when their words are meaningless. Humans are naturally empathetic. It’s hard to not get caught up in another person’s enthusiasm, especially when the speaker seems overflowing with joy. When you’re not as happy as you feel you should be, the radiant joy that one sees in others (and the promise that you, too, can experience it) becomes powerfully attractive. It’s performance art, and it works … on some people.
Once you get past the enthusiasm, though, the message is almost always hollow, shot through with rot. Older (and therefore more cynical workers) roll their eyes rather than succumb to the emotional rush. Seasoned workers have heard the aphorisms repeated too many times; they’ve learned that nothing useful ever comes out of a ‘rah-rah’ session. Many have a hard time keeping the scorn from leaking into their tone or expression. Some don’t bother to try.
I can hardly blame them. I’ve heard excruciatingly-earnest ‘management trainers’ exhort me to ‘follow your dreams’ so many times that I’ve started blanking out just so that I don’t throw something at the presenter. There have been moments when I’ve seriously considered saying something to the effect of ‘Seriously dude … You’re really going to stand there and tell me that your dream – the awe-inspiring vision of the best-possible life that you could possibly imagine– was to fly to Dayton, Ohio in the middle of winter so that you could spend eight hours under the buzzing fluorescent lights to lecture a throng of silent and emotionally-drained middle managers? That was your dream? Because if it wasn’t, then why aren’t you following your own bloody advice?’
That’s the most depressing thing about the whole ‘mandatory training’ business: once a go-go-go! presenter’s manic charm has lost its lustre, there’s usually nothing left in their ‘content’ to inspire anything other than mockery. You hear in muttered sotto voce in the bank ranks, and by the tea cart on breaks. ‘Why are we here? What’s the point of all this? How does this help me deal with Problem X?’
Most corporate training needs to address (directly or indirectly) one of two core subjects: ‘how does this content help me avoid getting fired?’ or ‘how does this content help me become more professionally competitive?’ Everything else is fluff.
The fact is, the rah-rah sessions don’t help. They’re not solutions; there’s no more substance to the sessions’ message than there is nutrition in a peppermint. That’s why these ‘classes’ inevitably fail to meet their objectives: workers want practical answers to their immediate problems that they haven’t been able to solve on their own. People want practical workarounds for the cultural roadblocks that frustrate their everyday existence. When people are promised solutions and then don’t get any, they rightfully get resentful, vexed, and waspish. Morale suffers. People tune out.
So why, then, do companies keep wasting money on these substance-free ‘consultants’ who wind up harming productivity rather than helping it? Don’t they see that they’re wasting time and money? Don’t they realize that they’re alienating their people rather than inspiring them?
In actuality … no. They often don’t. In fact, I’ve found that in most cases, the folks at the top of the hierarchy walk away from these ‘classes’ with exactly the opposite assessment of the sessions’ value than the participants did. The Big Boss believes that their ‘inspirational’ event was a smash success. Why? Because that’s what they’ve been told by a biased source!
Consider this anecdote from page 78 of General Colin Powell’s second autobiography It Worked for Me (In Life and Leadership):
‘One miserable day in Korea in 1974, my battalion was called on to assemble in the post theatre right now to listen to a speech from a visiting Pentagon official. With no prior notice we were expected to fill the theatre in twenty minutes. The unit was spread all over the post. I complained briefly, but was told I was wasting time, get on with it!
The ‘because I said so’ explanation didn’t fly when we were all primary school age. Why would anyone expect to fly in the working world?
‘The theatre was locked. We had to knock the lock off with an ax. Troops were dragged in from all over; wanders from other battalions got scooped up. We even dragged in a soldier on his way to the stockade and his two MP escorts. We filled the theatre just in time. The Pentagon official arrived, gave a ten-minute speech on race relations, and was gone.
‘The bewildered troops staggered out of the theatre wondering what the hell that was all about. I felt miserable and imagined the troops mumbling about military dumbness and their idiot battalion commander …’
So far, so good. Powell’s set the tone and context for the story. It resonates. I know that I’ve been yanked away from my duties to go attend some random outsider’s rah-rah ‘training’ session, only to walk away frustrated, angry, and confused. Powel starts his story saying that he felt just like us.
‘… As I walked to my office, one of my company first sergeants came alongside and announced cheerfully, “Hey sir, it’s another great day to be a soldier.”’
‘“I don’t think so,” I said. “I just jerked the whole battalion around for a dog and pony show.”’
That’s when Powell completely lost the plot:
‘“Hey sir, no problem,” [the first sergeant] replied. “The troops are fine. They know you needed them there and you would never have come up with such a nutty thing. They are with you.”
‘… and they all think you’re the handsomest boss ever. Really. Everyone says that. I overheard some managers whispering in the break room about how they’ve never had a better boss and that everyone secretly admires your business plan!’
I threw the book across the room when I read that passage. In fact, I threw it into the corner of my office again after I transcribed that story. I’ve tried to finish it, and I’ve never been able to.
Here’s where I think General Powell lost his bloody mind: first, he admitted that he knew that the Pentagon Official’s event was disruptive and unwelcome. He admitted that he was jerking his subordinates around on the order of upper management. He rightfully expected his people to angry with him for having had their time wasted. All good and correct. Had he stopped there, it would have been a dynamite story about not wasting your people’s time.
Instead, he related how one smarmy sycophant sidled up to him and told him what he wanted to hear: No one is upset. We all love and respect you. We don’t mind the vapid interruption. One guy with a blatantly obvious political agenda approached him unsolicited, whispered some honeyed lies in his ear, and the good general walked away happy – believing against his own experience that this one bootlicker accurately spoke for all of the other soldiers in his battalion.
I submit for consideration that the unnamed first sergeant in this story was an obsequious today, currying favour with his powerful boss. It appears that Powell wanted to believe that he was still popular with his men. So, he took as gospel a single without stopping to cross-check it with any other dissenting opinions. He even let the praise overrule his own personal experience and retroactively re-characterized the event from something useless to something … somehow not.
‘Great news, everyone! Our “skip fire” initiative has made it possible to fit twice as many skips in the same space as before. That’ll open up an additional reserved parking space.’
Was then-Lieutenant Colonel Powell an idiot? No; his record suggests otherwise. Was he a bad leader? Probably not; at least, not based on this isolated anecdote. He did, however, demonstrate a classic management misstep in how he interpreted the Pentagon official’s ‘training.’ I’ll wager you twenty quid that more than half (if not most!) of the soldiers who sat through that ridiculous lecture walked away with a negative impression of Powell after the event ended. If Powell had been more honest with himself, he would have picked up on that. Instead, he heard what he wanted to hear, and put it out of his mind. 
General Powell made a mistake: he made an assessment based on one person’s review without factoring in the speaker’s likely biases. He’s hardly the first manager to make this mistake, and he certainly won’t be the last. In fact, I argue that this is a predictable outcome of bad training.
Consider: the people who were most angry about the waste-of-time event are often the least likely to speak up about it. Why? First, because complaining to the Big Boss makes you look like a disgruntled employee. Second, because insulting the course that the boss selected could be interpreted as a personal attack on the boss. That’s not just counterproductive; it runs the risk of career suicide.
Meanwhile, those people inclined to curry favour with the Big Boss are often the most likely to use the feedback vacuum to say whatever it takes to shine the boss’s apple (so to speak). They don’t care about the training itself; they simply want to score positive political points. So, they praise the course. First, because demonstrating a positive, pro-company attitude makes you look like a strong team player. Second, because complimenting the course that the boss selected will likely be interpreted as subtle praise of the boss’s genius. If the gambit succeeds, it earns favour; if it fails, it costs nothing.
Praise is the proven go-to tactic in cut-throat office politics. When it succeeds, it gives the recipient a rush of good feeling that can become both addicting and obfuscating. It costs nothing, and can be re-tried repeatedly with little risk of blow-back.
This is why we all keep getting dragged into ‘management training’ classes, seminars, and lectures that don’t fulfil their stated objectives. Someone – usually just one ambitious person – tells the boss that his or her well-intentioned idea hit the mark … exactly what the Big Boss wants to hear. They then retroactively re-characterize the content-free event as a ‘success,’ and either repeat it, or endorse it to others, or both … and the cycle repeats.
The only way that I’ve found to break the cycle is to have candid discussions with upper management about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of commercial training providers. Make it clear that the underperforming rah-rah provider isn’t meeting the organisation’s operational needs. Failing that, the next best technique is to take over training provider selection and management. Take the initiative to screen out the content-free types and then work with your training providers to insist on both the content and the delivery model that serves your people. Demand that the trainers eschew cheap ‘pep rally’ theatrics in favour of actual solutions.
Failing that, learn how to maintain a poker face and sleep with your eyes open.
 To be fair, this all has to be inferred, since Powell only spends less than one page discussing it.
Title Allusion: Colin Powell, It Worked for Me (In Life and Leadership) (2012 book)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.
Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.