Most training dollars are largely wasted, and it doesn’t need to be that way.

The reality is that Awareness ≠ Change, but most training and development programs operate on the assumption that Awareness = Change, leading to a waste of time and resources and engendering skepticism and disengagement among participants.

The hard truth is that when employees are introduced to new concepts or models like qualities of a respectful workplace; take courses on the steps to handling difficult conversations or effective performance dialogue; are assessed using some personality theory; or attend a roll-out of the new organizational vision, mission, values or leadership competencies … nothing has really happened yet, and likely nothing significant and sustainable will ever happen.

Why? There are two main reasons.

#1: Individual Capacity-building

The first reason is that it takes time to develop the new neural pathways that are required to think and then act differently. Neither new insights nor peak experiences change the brain. What does change the brain are short, frequent cycles of action and reflection over a period of time. Leaders need to be part of a context that requires these ongoing, iterative cycles, where they try something new, reflect on how it went, adjust and adapt, and try again.

Somehow, we all have this understanding when we learn to improve our performance in a sport or musical instrument. No one would attend a hockey or piano workshop, even if taught by an elite teacher, and believe that their attendance, by itself, makes them better at their craft. They know that they will need regular practice to actually improve. Yet the leadership development industry often gives people diplomas in “Communications 101” at the end of a workshop, and participants can now list this training on their resume, under the illusion that it has real meaning.

Neuroscience tells us that short, frequent cycles are best. It’s better to reflect for 10 minutes each day then an hour once a week, and it’s even better to reflect for one minute 10 times a day. Unfortunately, few organizations provide a structure that requires and tracks the progress and results of that practice.

Encourage leaders to set an intention in the morning — something they want to focus on that will help them become better leaders and better human beings. It’s then important, at the end of the day, to take a few minutes to replay the day in light of that intention:

  • How did I do?
  • How often did I remember my intention?
  • What positive results came about?
  • What opportunities were missed?

It’s important that leaders ask these questions from a kind and curious place, not from the “inner critic.” This exercise is not intended to be another way to beat themselves up but, rather, to focus on what they’re learning over time. If they forgot about their intention the whole day? No problem — there’s always tomorrow.

Why do leaders tend to forget their intentions? Our brains like to run on cheap fuel. We automatically revert to habits. It takes a lot more energy to run the frontal lobes, the seat of executive functions like insight, self-awareness and response flexibility. That energy is why leaders need a reflection structure: They need to actively overcome their brain’s tendency to go on autopilot.

Leaders generally find rich value in cultivating a reflection practice, because they find themselves learning and growing in the direction of changes that are personally meaningful for them.

Leaders can engage in many cycles throughout the day of “goal-plan-action-reflection.” For example, right before a meeting with a direct report, leaders can:

Goal: Take 30 seconds to ask, “What’s my desired outcome for this direct report? What do I want her to leave with?” Consider goals for both tasks and people — for example, “I want her to be clearer on the next steps for her important project, and I also want her to know that I have her back — that I’m on her side.”

Plan: Given that goal, what actions might you take? Being aware of our habitual tendencies is important here. For example, the leader might decide to ask more curious questions rather than falling into her usual habit of just giving advice.

Action: During the meeting, try to be mindful of the desired outcome and tentative plan.

Reflection: After the meeting, how did it go? To what extent did the leader achieve the desired outcome? What can she learn from that will facilitate effectiveness in the future?

This process can also occur collaboratively, where both participants clarify their desired outcomes and what they think will help them achieve those outcomes, and then reflect at the end on how they did.

Without “book-ending” — reflecting at the beginning and then again at the end, for individual meetings and for the day as a whole — leaders don’t have the opportunity to build their capacity over time.

Most organizations evaluate their training and development departments based on how many training sessions they delivered, not on whether they have processes in place for learners’ new awareness to lead to actual change in thinking and then behavior — which takes us to the second factor.

#2: Organizational Alignment

Almost all organizations privilege an individual focus over a collective or systemic perspective, to their detriment. When people complete a training, roll-out of new organizational values or any other learning initiative, what do they immediately look for?

Are Senior Leaders Acting in Accordance With the Initiative?

What’s important isn’t whether senior leaders gave a good kick-off speech but whether they actually aligned with what they shared. This alignment should be self-evident: If the workshop was about coaching skills, are senior leaders modeling those skills? Are they committed to practicing and improving?

This alignment is even more important if the organization introduced new values. For example, are senior leaders acting like “people are our most important asset,” or are they acting more like “people are disposable objects to get the work done”?

Is the Organization Aligned to Support This Initiative?

As organizational culture theorist and practitioner Ed Schein says, culture is determined by what senior leaders pay attention to. What do they attend to, measure, reward and control? What are their criteria for hiring and promotion, and who receives attention and resources?

For example, training participants often roll their eyes when the initiative is about supporting innovation, creativity and smart risk-taking, but they’ve seen that the people who play it safe and color within the lines are the ones who move ahead.

What Works?

Training teams should not launch initiatives without first ensuring overall organizational alignment. Here, “organization” refers to the scope of the initiative or the level at which the change is being introduced (from a single team to the entire organization), and “senior leaders” refers to the leaders at the top of that level (from the team leader to the executive team).

No matter the level or scope, change begins with the senior leaders, not with human resources or the training and development team. These leaders must provide clarity regarding what the initiative is trying to achieve. What’s the business case for it? It’s amazing how often people don’t understand the problem with the status quo or why a change is necessary to support important organizational goals.

Senior leaders then engage a cross-functional, cross-hierarchical team to identify strengths and challenges to supporting that initiative. What current policies, procedures and practices support the initiative, and which ones limit it? In what ways is the organization aligned — or not? Then, they craft a strategy that builds on the strengths and addresses the challenges as much as possible. This systemic approach, in addition to surfacing key factors for success, also builds organization-wide ownership in the initiative’s success.

Senior leaders must also be open to holding themselves and others accountable for alignment with the initiative and regularly ask for feedback. Multinational organizations often invest vast resources in rolling out new leadership principles, only to find that even their most senior leaders don’t feel safe letting the executive team know when they believe their actions are out of alignment with those new principles.

The organization must put processes in place in ensure that leaders stop working on autopilot and, instead, engage in ongoing cycles of action and reflection. These processes are critical to the success of the initiative. For example, if the organization is promoting more collaboration, collaboration needs to be a regular topic in performance dialogues. Leadership teams throughout the organization need to regularly ask themselves what they’re doing that’s aligned and not aligned with collaboration. The organization must require individual leaders to regularly reflect on what they’re doing differently, where they’re missing opportunities, the positive results they’re seeing and why those results are meaningful.

Finally, the organization needs to have a way of tracking progress and course-correcting as needed.

Make better use of your training resources. Awareness can, indeed, lead to real and sustainable change.

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