Chapter 6 of Building A High Performing Team on Purpose – Learning and Development.

Why training initiatives often fail

“We sent them on a training course to fix a weakness they had.  They returned and loved the session, stating that whilst there were a number of concepts they already knew, they still enjoyed the session and took a lot out of it.  Now, let’s get back to the core business, the real work…”

I’ve mentioned in earlier sections about the dopamine fix that we get when we think we have completed something, but haven’t.  There is perhaps no bigger place for this to take place than completing training.  Actually, it’s more when others have completed training, because when they do so they are fixed, right?

You might be thinking that’s an odd thing to write in a series about building a high performing team on purpose, that I begin with challenging the value of training. 

Shouldn’t you be suggesting we train our people as much as possible?

Well, sort of. 

There is a measure that is sometimes tracked in organisations to identify whether targets have been met in learning and development.  One of the easiest measures is the number of hours/days spent in training.  These kinds of measures can be useful in large organisations where the political environment requires an irrefutable metric of success. 

The same thing happens at an individual manager and employee level, where the solution to a gap in an employee’s skill, knowledge or capability is to send them on a training program – or a group training session for the whole team.  When an employee gets an offer to spend a day or two away from the office to receive training, they often jump at the chance. They come back to the office and talk about how valuable it was and that it was enjoyable.  It’s enjoyable to get paid to spend time in a workshop where the thinking is done for you and you get to enjoy as much coffee, mints, egg sandwiches and sushi as you want. Many managers and employees have an addiction to training.  

But is it really improving the performance of anyone?

Now let me be clear, there can definitely be significant benefits gained from training and it is essential to building a high performing team on purpose.  It’s just that if a manager is not truly passionate about learning and development, then they view the action of sending someone on a course as being enough.  It’s easy to send an email approving them to go and feels good to think you are actually doing something.  That dopamine fix feels good and we tell people that we send our team on x days training per year.

But in actual fact, in many cases it achieved very little value for the business.

Ask yourself how many of the below points have applied to a training initiative that has taken place in your business?

  1. Is the training tied back to the business strategy?                                                                                                                                                                              
  2. Are the learning outcomes linked back to expectations in the workplace that will improve performance?                                                                                                                                                                              
  3. Did each manager meet with their direct reports and agree expectations before the training?                                                                                                                                                                              
  4. Did each manager or someone else provide ongoing coaching on the skills, knowledge and/or capabilities required?                                                                                                                                                                              
  5. Did the manager follow up to confirm if the skills, knowledge and/or capabilities have been applied effectively?                                                                                                                                                                              
  6. Has there been an overall review of the training initiative against measures of success (and what improvements are needed for next time)?                                                                                                                                                                              
  7. Is the training supplementing a practice of continuous learning at work (as opposed to an initiative that sits outside the day to day)?

If you didn’t answer “Yes” to all of the above questions, chances are you are leaving value on the table.  If this were the case, a question to ask yourself is:

Was this due to a lack of knowledge, or a lack of motivation from your senior leaders to truly create a culture of learning?

With such little success from many training initiatives, it is easy for those senior managers who don’t truly believe in learning and development to not view it as a worthwhile investment.  On top of that, if a company has high turnover of employees many view it as money down the drain.  In a downturn such as right now in the COVID-19 crisis, training budgets get slashed because it is considered non-essential. 

This problem is perhaps even greater when we look at small-medium businesses.  Smaller companies struggle to provide sufficient new entrant training, let alone taking individual employee development to the next level.  

The barriers faced for such businesses are greater than for large corporations, because they usually don’t have a person whose job it is to train people and so this is left up to the manager.  Most managers in SMEs are not properly trained in how to train and are often dealing with day-to-day issues when their new starter joined. 

Coupled with the fact that they are usually hiring one person at a time, holding structured classroom training is simply not an option and competency assessment is usually an after-thought.  Most new starters are therefore left to shadow the existing team, who may not may not be showing them the right things in the right way.  

The result is that the particular techniques and knowledge that helped grow the business in the first place are lost or at best, diluted as the business grows.  Hence, sending someone external for classroom training becomes a much more attractive option.

The difficulty with trying to make adults learn

We are a funny bunch.  Adults.  We really like to do our own thing.  From around age 16 our brains develop in a way that programs us to reject information that doesn’t fit with what we think we know.  Parents often complain that their teenage kids think they know everything and find it frustrating that their previous methods of teaching their children are no longer working.  The correct information that parents are trying to impart to their kids goes in one ear and out the other, with teenagers preferring to make sense of the world themselves.

This is not too dissimilar to the experience that companies have with training existing employees on new ways of working.  We also go where the energy takes us, mostly towards what we like and away from what we don’t.  Once we are established in a business or industry, we like the fact that we know things are in a groove.  We identify with our existing knowledge and anything that threatens this identity is rejected.  Think of that parent trying to tell their 16-year-old that their new style of clothes doesn’t look very good. 

Our identity and our view of ourselves is one of the most valuable things we have.  For some people it is an obsession.  You see this on social media as a giveaway of what the masses think.  People love taking those surveys that categorise them into which Brooklyn 99 character they are most like.  Or perhaps showing video footage of what is “Literally (read figuratively) me!”.

Below are three key problems that exist with trying to make adults learn in 2020…

We are fighting against the learner’s self-identity

Part of the problem with training interventions is that they can conflict with a learner’s self-identity.  Our identity or status as a person is one of the most important things in the world to us.  When I say status, I don’t mean necessarily a fancy car or title, I am talking about how we view ourselves and how we want the world to view us.  

If a person views themselves as being a sales professional and then gets sent to a sales training course with others in their team who they don’t rate as sales professionals, they will be more likely to reject the content or else show the other learners what they know already.  

There is a need to maintain the self-identity that they are a sales professional and this can prevent them from being open to learning something new – if they think they know it already.  But there is a massive difference between knowing about a concept and actually applying it effectively in your job. 

Conversely, if a person is a sales professional, but identify themselves as someone who loves to learn and values learning, they may approach the learning with a more open mind.  They may even want to appear open and to make mistakes to allow others to learn more as well.  

What is even better is this person can become part of the learning creation, by contributing knowledge, feedback and content towards learning programs.  Perhaps even through a forum similar to social media, which is how people are doing so in their personal lives.  As I often say to managers implementing a change or new program – leave something for the critics.  A perfect training solution is not the perfect solution.

People have lower attention spans

People say they are time poor.  That’s not the case.  


People no longer have the need to expend energy on things they don’t like anywhere near as much as before.  

Most people don’t want to read a 10 minute article when they can watch a 2 minute video.  There will only be a small proportion of people who have read this far.  I know this because only a small proportion of people truly want to learn what it takes to build a high performing team on purpose.  Well done to you, and I mean that.

Speaking of watching things, before Netflix, before even Foxtel you had to watch Abbot and Costello do their “Who’s on first” routine on a Saturday afternoon if you wanted to watch something entertaining on TV.  For most people these days, unless they have a TV series they are binge watching, an evening on Netflix involves about an hour of flicking between shows they can’t be bothered getting into. 

There is a greater need today to provide learning experiences.  Learning systems need to go beyond LMSs (Learning Management Systems) and provide a learning experience similar to the engagement people are used to from the content they are constantly consuming (which is a lot of video) and social media they are accessing every day.  

If users can share and rate content, have their favourite playlists etc. then these learning practices can become lifelong practices.  They need to then bring this back into their day-to-day jobs for this information to truly become knowledge.

We need to see the relevance and it needs to be practical

There is a need for the learner to buy-in to the learning before it can take place.  With so many messages coming our way each day, our brains are highly attuned to filtering out what we consider irrelevant.  Much like in a sales process, your product or service may be the best out there, but until your prospect knows they have a problem or they are feeling a pain point, there is no motivation to buy.  

Buying is the exchange of energy for more energy.   You give money, which takes energy and you get a product or service that gives you more energy.  Learning works the same way.  You give time, money and effort towards learning and in return you get back more energy.  Energy in the form of better performance, less stress, more money, more confidence. 

Even when the time is paid for by the company, the money is covered by training budgets, there is still the energy to learn and the energy to apply the learning.  So it has to be considered relevant to the learner or else they will switch off.  Help learners solve real life problems that make their lives easier.  Translate concepts into their daily rhythm. 

The problem with training workshops is that only a small proportion of participants will have the learning ability and motivation to translate the content into action.  These people are usually your high potentials and high performers.  Learning only happens when there is a change in the person who has learnt.  

A golf instructor can explain to you how to swing a golf club and you could memorise this information and recite it back.  But does that mean you know how to actually hit a golf ball properly?  No.  You would need to head to the driving range and practice, with your instructor providing feedback along the way.  This example is so easy to understand because of its practical nature.  Yet so many managers think that explaining to an employee what they need to do equates to training them.  It makes no sense, yet is happening every day in businesses. 

Another common practice managers love is shadowing, because they can place a new joiner with a somewhat experienced person and imagine the knowledge transfer through osmosis.  Never mind that the existing employee is doing some things the wrong way, they lack skill in training people and don’t know what it is specifically they are meant to train them in.  The result of this is the new person is not trained properly. 

We need to make learning part of the fabric of the organisation

It’s not enough for training to be a side activity that takes place so we can tick that box.  If you want to truly build a high performing team on purpose, your approach to learning and development needs to permeate through the very fabric of your business.  You need to define what is strategically important, create a learning culture and give people learning experiences.

Now that you have read through a series of chapters that provide the foundations for you to build a high performing team on purpose, it’s worthwhile reflecting back where we are at.  The true power of each chapter is not for it to stand alone, but to work together.  You cannot simply hire great talent and lead them poorly.  Similarly, if you don’t have a clear business strategy and define the important competencies to develop, your training initiatives won’t provide a competitive advantage or further your strategy.

As a reminder, the chapters we have covered so far:

  1. Get your team back to work safely and trusting in you as a leader (
  2. Have a strategy for your business that has trade offs on what is important and what isn’t (
  3. Design your organisation around your strategy, which goes beyond simply a chart, but encapsulates the processes, performance measures, communication and investment in how the organizational energy flows (
  4. Invest in the right leadership who can help deliver on your strategy, ensuring you don’t miscast pure individual contributors into leadership roles (
  5. Bring in the right talent that supports you organizational design and who can learn what is needed for your strategy (

I’ll give you an example:

  • Let’s just say a big part of your strategy is to provide your clients with the most valuable insights into data that will help them further their business.
  •  Your organisational design needs to look at how your business will have the capability to do so, from your defined positions, to your processes, your systems and your talent
  • You will need to hire talent who are predisposed to be good at things such as: analytical thinking, strategic thinking, numerical reasoning and communication.
  • You need to have the right leaders capable of understanding your strategy, who capture the hearts and minds of the team towards that direction and to focus on developing people to your needed capability
  • Your training initiatives need to support the systems, processes, thinking and other important aspects of what you need to deliver in your strategy

This example is very high level, but hopefully it shows how each aspect I have written about needs to support one another for you to truly build a high performing team on purpose.  Each item is also not discrete from one another.  For example, your leaders and people you hire impact on the success of training, because it only works properly by creating a learning culture.

Create a learning culture

If you are going to build a high performing team on purpose, you must have a culture that values learning. Otherwise, any high performance will be short-lived as your competitors are learning faster than you.  A learning culture is made up of a collection of individuals who value learning above most other things and have a natural energy towards learning that goes beyond what is asked of them from the business.  It must be led from the top and the people who hire into the business need to share these values.

Take an example of the two sales professionals: Person A rejects learning and Person B supports and leads learning.  Now think of a company that is full of either Person A or Person B and you have yourself a non-learning culture and a learning culture.  But the harsh reality is that not all people in an organisation have equal influence.  It’s the people at the top who have the most power over what takes place and what people value at work.  So as a leader, if you don’t value learning yourself, then what makes you think that any of your team will value learning?

“I’m already highly knowledgeable, once the rest of the team reaches my level then I will invest in my learning.”

It doesn’t work like that.  It’s not a logical debate.  We’re talking about people here and people follow what the leader’s actions show that they value.  It’s like looking at someone’s feet in a standing group conversation.  If your feet are pointing towards the door you are wanting to leave.  If one person is listening to another person, but their foot is pointing towards a different person then they are just waiting for the sentence to end before they can direct things where they want.  A learning culture starts at the top and needs to be authentic. What’s good for them needs to be good for you.  You then need to hire people who have an ability to learn and a motivation to learn. 

Give learning experiences

Learning is not just about training.  People need to have the opportunity to apply what they have learnt in a safe environment, where mistakes are highly valued as learning experiences.  As a business owner or leader, you may have learnt in a sink or swim situation, but that doesn’t mean that is suitable for others. 

For every success story from a sink or swim situation there were 99 failures that you have forgotten about.  So it’s important though to not set people up to fail, as this will be counter-productive.  You may do so unintentionally, as you might believe the person can do the assignment you are wanting them to complete.  However, if you have mis-diagnosed their strengths and actually thrown them into a task that exposes their weaknesses, you might be bringing their time with you to a premature end. 

Giving people more learning experiences that enable them to grow and be successful is also likely to improve your retention of talent.   People who are able to best utilise their talent and continue to build on their strengths are likely to be more fulfilled in their jobs.  This makes it a lot more difficult to leave their current position as they feel more connected to the environment that is providing that fulfillment.  Once that no longer exists, they will look for that in other places.

Questions to ask yourself 

  • What is the capability that your business needs to have to supports your strategy? 
  • How can you best develop this with new starters? 
  • How can you continue to develop this throughout the career journey for your people?
  • How do you create a culture of learning to encourage employees to bring in relevant new knowledge and capability, sharing it with others?

Key take-aways

  • Small businesses do not have the same learning and development resources and large businesses and often struggle to train new entrants properly because they are hiring one at a time
  • They are also susceptible to people leaving for career opportunities elsewhere, given the relative limited opportunities for new experiences
  • There is a need to develop new competencies and to retrain staff in new ways of working to get the most value out of technological advancement
  • There is a growing trend where the way people learn is more in more personal, social, integrated with work and to support continuous lifelong learning

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