Why management training doesn’t work (and what you should be doing instead)

Katy Tynan says we need more than just classroom training to make successful managers. 

It’s 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, and a group of professionals is trickling out of a conference room for coffee and a break. They’ve spent the last day and a half in a workshop, immersed in interactive exercises, fully engaged in learning the skills they need to lead their teams.

They are excited and energised. When they fill out their evaluations at the end of the day, they will rank this workshop as excellent, and give high praise to the facilitator.

The facilitator, in turn, is also engaged and energised. She is thrilled at how well the programme is going, and feels a strong connection to the students. This programme is going exactly as she planned, and she has every hope of being asked to conduct more of these workshops at this organisation and beyond.

And finally, the learning and development manager who booked the workshop is happy. She has accomplished a goal of providing professional development for emerging leaders, which is one of her key initiatives for the year. With the high ratings from the participants, she can consider this a success, and easily rebook the same session for others.

Everyone seems thrilled, so what’s the problem?

Managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement.

Classroom training alone won’t improve job performance

Changing habits is hard work, and while every attendee of this workshop has the intention of becoming a better leader, science tells us that when they get back to their desks, they’ll go back to their old habits.

Study after study has shown that while learners enjoy workshops, and rate them highly, they don’t actually create lasting behaviour change. The interactive activities are engaging, but they don’t directly apply to the day to day challenges that managers face.

Why managers matter

Managers are the bedrock of work. They are also the reason that many people hate their jobs. Most new managers have a strong desire to be successful, and for their team members to enjoy working for them. But because they lack the skills they need, they spend a long period, typically up to twelve months, in a trial and error mode.

And while they make those mistakes (and slowly learn on their own), they frustrate their team members.

This, in turn, shows itself in the form of low engagement, turnover, frustration, and low productivity, which costs companies billions of dollars every year. An analysis by McClean and Company put the cost of a disengaged worker at $3400 for every $10,000 in annual salary.

Let’s run some quick numbers. If a new manager has five people on their team, each making $50,000/year, that’s a total of $250,000 in annual salary. That would amount to $85,000 in lost productivity during that initial year where an unskilled manager is learning on the job and failing to fully engage their team.

That’s an astounding cost, easily exceeding the price of a robust management development solution. And we can directly tie the benefits of closing that gap to improving engagement. Managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement (Gallup, 2013).

Closing the gap

So how do we do it? How can we improve the support solutions we offer to emerging managers to help reduce that six- to twelve-month trial and error period, and reduce the drop in engagement that team members experience when working for a manager who is still learning the ropes?

In the late 80s, the Center for Creative Leadership published the 70/20/10 model, which they used to describe how people learn. 10% of our learning comes from formal training, including sessions such as the ones offered to new managers.

For managers to master the remaining 90%, they need to have the opportunity to take the skills they learn in the classroom, and practice them on the job. This is where management training programmes typically go off the rails.

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70% happens on the job. That’s the learning we do by trial and error. It’s the largest percentage of where our learning comes from but (and this is the critical part) it’s the least efficient. That’s where we are seeing the gap where leaders are left without the direct, on-the-job support they need. That gap needs to be closed, and the best tools for the job are on-demand learning and coaching.

The final 20% comes through social and experiential learning.

This is where peer coaching and communities of practice come into play. Being able to talk through our challenges with others who are facing the same issues, and to learn from others helps us take what we learned in the classroom, and what we’ve observed in our own work, and synthesise that to accelerate both our own learning and our colleagues.

Summing it up

We know that classroom training alone doesn’t move the needle on behaviour change, but it has been a simple and rewarding solution for organisations to apply, and say that they have provided something to support new managers.

But the cost of the gap, that six- to twelve-month period when managers are learning on the job without support, is higher than most companies consider. It’s that gap that can be closed when a complete support system is offered to emerging leaders.

As professionals in the learning and development space, we’ve all been frustrated by the continued perception that work is frustrating, and that managers are horrible bosses who spend their days making their employees miserable.

The truth is that every emerging leader wants to be successful and supportive. We just need to change how we approach developing new leaders, so they have the tools they need to succeed.


About the author

Katy Tynan is an expert in the transition to management. She is the author ‘How Did I Not See This Coming: The New Manager’s Guide to Avoiding Total Disaster’ (ATD Press, December 2017). Katy is the founder of Liteskip Consulting Group.


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