Why Leadership Training Fails
by Joe DiSabatino and Janet Oliver
You hear the message everywhere: businesses need to break away from the old top heavy chain-of-command style of leadership if they are going to compete successfully in the 21st century. Formal hierarchy and traditional lines of power are out. Participatory management, teams, informal structures based on expertise or special projects, and decentralized decision-making are in.
Business leaders have heard the mantra departing employees are chanting as they walk out the door; communication problems in the company and micromanagement by their boss are intolerable. In response, senior-level management sends its leaders to management training where they learn to listen and communicate more effectively, use a barrage of personality and 360 assessment tools, share their feelings, generate open dialogue and conversation, and think systemically. To further improve quality and loyalty, top leaders reinvent and reengineer their corporations, revamp them into learning organizations, decentralize them into teams, revision them into the future, and ask every employee to create endless pages of annual objectives and competencies.
Generally, new management and leadership fads seem to work extremely well for some companies for a short time until return-on-investment in training on these methods nose-dives into steep decline. New fads emerge as the commitment level to a methodology originating from the top wanes when the economy or the CEO changes.
Is this brief lifespan for new management trends inevitable? Or are we missing something essential, an X -factor that acts like a virus on the best intentions of new management philosophies, that corrupts and corrodes their usefulness over time, until they are shelved like outdated Windows versions?
In all the current management books, there is an important factor that is being overlooked. Time and time again, managers are told that to improve employee retention they must improve their communication skills and become more empowering. Often companies listen too literally to the reasons their departing employees give for leaving. If an employee says he had communication problems with his boss, then his boss is sent for communication skills training. If micro-management was the departing gripe then the boss must learn how to delegate, empower, and coach.
We need to take a more in-depth look at what employees are saying when they complain about “communication” or “micro-management” problems at work. Many marriage therapists have found that communication training alone rarely improves a squabbling couple’s relationship, even though they will universally identify “communication problems” as their main issue. Despite improving communication skills, their fundamental problems remain the same. What makes us think that it will suddenly work in managerial relationships instead?
So what is really going on here? What is it within organizations that seems to de-claw and neuter revolutionary management ideas within a few years, absorbing them into the status quo? The answer may be simple but not immediately obvious: as much as we like to think otherwise, power, authority, chains of command, and authoritarian hierarchies are formidable organizational realities. Like massive boulders in the fast stream of organizational change, their presence is only ignored at a price. Something in us wants to avoid honestly acknowledging the dimensions of power operating beneath the surface within ourselves and within the organizations we work for. No matter how often leadership literature announces the extinction of traditional hierarchical models, the hierarchical dinosaur, nevertheless, survives, often in covert ways.
Are new egalitarian leaderships models contra naturum? In order to accomplish essential survival tasks, do human beings naturally organize themselves into hierarchies based on increasing ability to bring home the desired goods? An argument can be made that the hierarchical model has been engrained in our collective psyche through countless millennia despite the inherent flaws in this way of getting things done. In his book Kinds of Power, psychologist James Hillman says, “The leader cannot help but come forward and cannot help being pushed forward by others who intuitively recognize leadership and submit to a hierarchical structure, the pecking order.”
This supposed hierarchical necessity not only clashes with contemporary management ideas but also with fundamental values of the American culture. A fierce sense of individual equality combines with our belief in the power and right of the masses to vote against or resist centralized authority if they disagree with what is coming down the pike.
And yet from the time we enter school, our first job, or the military, we are told to listen, obey, follow orders, respect the chain of command, and be good followers in order to be good leaders someday. One of the fascinating aspects of American culture is the dynamic tension that has existed for over two centuries between the Declaration of Independence engraved in each citizen’s psyche, layered over top of much older, species-wide experiences that say just as accurately, “All men are not created equal.”
No one talks about this contradictory tension. The new leadership gurus tell us that the hierarchical way of sailing a corporate ship can be tossed overboard with the captain and his first mate, and replaced with hands-off sailing or sailing by consensus. Sounds good. But unpredictable foibles of the sea, unequal sailing experience, differing levels of composure under pressure, risk-taking tolerance levels, and basic human competitiveness will always be there, along with the disgruntled voices of suppressed authority heard in the background, ready to re-assert their power if conditions warrant. Conditions often do. How quickly is the team approach put on the back burner in times of a budgetary crisis? Then grumbling begins about so-called “communication” problems in the organization.
To avoid giving confusing and frustrating double messages, organizations need to openly examine and define as clearly as possible the line where hierarchical control ends and participatory management begins, a topic rarely discussed. That “thin red line” is hard to discern yet its presence can be sensed in every internal document, action, policy and decision made by an organization. If left unacknowledged, this tension at the demarcation line between opposing worldviews—hierarchy vs. participation based on equality—can and will create serious problems.
In other words, so-called “communication” and “micromanagement” problems are really symptoms of the unacknowledged tension within hierarchical organizations striving for a participatory management culture. The lack of awareness of this tension is a blind spot in our organizations, our relationships, and in our culture. This tension creates passive resistance towards any organizational change when employees experience the resulting gap between promises of empowerment and hidden hierarchical realities. Formal authority is still there, sneaking up through the cracks in the organizational joints where the new participatory models are plastered over the old one.
Any organization with a formal hierarchy that embraces a participatory management culture automatically creates this pervasive dynamic tension with potential for both creative accomplishment and disaster. Handling this tension requires special considerations. If it is ignored, power is sapped from the organization by the loss of creative, high-energy staff.
What are the observable symptoms of this ignored tension?
Symptom #1: Managers give mixed messages to their employees.
To improve employee loyalty, the success of organizational goals, and employee acceptance of and commitment to models of organizational change there are five actions leaders and managers can take. These actions will target the root cause of the three symptoms discussed above.
Action #1: Clearly define organizational roles, expectations and
Action #2: Minimize occurrences of giving power, authority, and
decision-making ability to an employee and then taking them away.
Action #3: Be aware of the symbolic messages you send from your position
in the hierarchy.
Action #4: Don’t undermine the hierarchy.
Action # 5: Eliminate unnecessary information flow blocks.
An essential management skill that leaders in the coming century will need to continue developing is the ability to keep both balls in the air: responding progressively to evolving models of participatory management while being straightforward and realistic about their authority and the power structure they are part of. Leaders who do it well have staffs who admire them and are reluctant to leave, even for higher compensation.
About the Authors:
Janet Oliver has over fifteen years of organizational and human resource development experience in the United States and Europe. She has served as an executive and internal consultant for Fortune 200 companies and consulted with organizations in a wide variety of industries. Janet's proven corporate track record and Master's degree in Business ensure an approach to organizational development that is realistic and practical.
Joe and Janet are currently senior partners of Phoenix Consulting Associates, a leadership development and management coaching business in the Washington, D.C. area. Contact Phoenix Consulting Associates by telephone: (703) 319-1013; or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and visit www.phoenixleadership.com .