I hadn’t given the issue much thought until preparing for a leadership retreat. A vice president shared with me the usual laundry list of organizational woes – lack of strategic focus, muddled communication, loss of top talent – all of which definitely needed attention. Then, just as we were wrapping up, he said, “When you are facilitating the retreat, watch out for the word ‘training.’”

“Huh?” I asked.

He went on to explain that whenever confronted with a difficult issue, the company defaulted to creating a training program around it. It put them into their comfort zone, applying order to the chaos of a messy problem. They would produce a high-quality training program, which was great … except it failed to fix the issue.

His comment reminded me of the many times I have witnessed organizations do that very thing: When in doubt, train.

When Training Is the Wrong Choice

Training offers a vital instrument to the health and welfare of an organization. It builds talent, strengthens community and, when used appropriately, remedies organizational issues. But therein lies the problem: Too often, companies automatically choose training rather than tackling the issue underlying the perceived need to train. It’s not easy, but deciding first what the core issue is can make a big difference.

For example, a large consulting firm wanted to overcome its conflict-averse culture by training employees to communicate more candidly. It was their version of “The truth will set you free.” They invested in a two-day “difficult conversations” training course. The course was well designed, structured and delivered. The participants enjoyed it and acquired new vocabulary and techniques.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, other than it sidestepped the source of the problem: the firm president.

The president devoted himself to the success of the company, its bottom line, and its (and his) reputation. He also was a bully. What he said went. Underneath, he feared what might happen to his power if others successfully challenged his views. When people did object, he suggested that opposition could hurt their careers. Difficult conversations did not flourish, because truth carried a cost, one few were willing to pay.

The president’s bullying behavior created a culture of conflict avoidance. As long as he refused to change, teaching employees to hold difficult conversations was doomed to fail. The training offered comfortable, orderly tools, but the learning had no stickiness. The conflict-avoidant culture created by the president meant they could not safely carry their new tools back to the office.

To Train or Not to Train: Calling the Problem by Its Name

Before launching a training program, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What problem needs to be solved?
  2. Will training solve it?
  3. Are you sure you are not recommending training because it feels like safe, familiar territory?
  4. If the answer to questions 2 and 3 is “no,” are there conversations you and/or others are avoiding?

If you answered “yes” to question 4, there may be a difficult conversation in your future. Calling problems by their real name takes courage. At the same time, launching a training program destined to fail wastes resources, invites cynicism and, worst of all, perpetuates the problem. As hard as it might be, girding yourself and going after the underlying problem can have a significant positive impact.

Going After the Opportunity

At the consulting firm, taking on the president posed a major challenge. It also highlighted an issue that was critical to the future of the firm. The human resources director recognized the importance of raising it. She also knew she was not the right messenger for the president. Instead, she discussed it with a trusted senior executive. The conversation focused on the need to distribute authority more democratically. It was essential for the health of the firm, its succession and, ultimately, the president himself.

Her willingness to raise a major organizational issue led to many important conversations among other senior executives, outside advisors and, eventually, with the president. The president finally consented to hiring an executive coach with whom he could work through his issues about authority and control. With the benefit of time and multiple conversations about future organizational health, the consequences of bullying and a leadership succession plan, the president realized that giving up absolute control was not only good but essential for the firm’s future. It also furthered his personal financial exit plan. Top talent needs to see a pathway to the top. When that pathway is blocked, they leave, and with them goes the future of the firm.

The Gift of Training

The difficult conversation training the consulting firm offered had some impact for those who took the course. Its raised consciousness of the issue and created a common vocabulary. That is the gift of training. The larger gift, however, was the opportunity to evaluate the issue that precipitated the interest in training. It’s a tougher, less comfortable call, but one well worth making.

When in doubt, consider training, but before committing to it, ask yourself whether it will fix what is wrong. You will be doing everyone a favor.