Training is Not the Answer

We know that organizational change is a learning process, so what could make more sense in the organization’s move toward stewardship than training? It is so tempting to provide everyone a common learning experience. To initiate self-examination for each department. To use training to create a common language. To get everyone aligned and on the same page.

You can make a good living these days training people in leadership, empowerment, continuous improvement, managing change, Six Sigma, coaching skills, and on and on. If you work for a company of more than three hundred employees, you have been to one of these courses. If you have not, you are either very new or in trouble.

These courses are generally high-quality learning experiences. Quality is not the problem. The problem is in their mandatory nature. The idea that top management, with staff support knows what is best. In doing this, real responsibility for outcomes, direction, and re-creating culture stays centralized. Line managers and people doing the work are told one more time the kind of learning they require. Training is prescribed, and consistency and control are reaffirmed by the act of prescription.

Advocates of these training programs operate on the belief that managers in the middle want to know what is expected of them and that it is top management’s job, with technical support from staff and consultants, to act to meet that need. Training to let people know what is expected of them and to give them the tools to meet those expectations makes such common sense that it can be hard to see how the process simply reinforces the whole parenting regimen.

Listing competencies for others to live out and prescribing training for them is caretaking, a kindly variation of patriarchy. Defining how the middle and bottom should operate is people at or near the top taking responsibility for others’ actions and others’ outcomes. If we want people serving customers and making product to take ownership and responsibility, they will have to define and create the means for successfully living out those responsibilities on their own. There is much that the top and the bottom need from each other to live out partnership, but top- and staff-defined competencies and training prescriptions only reinforce the belief that the top knows and others do not. If training is needed, and it will be, let those who require it define it, choose it, and manage it. And let different units find different paths.

Reform efforts fail because the process of reform is not congruent with the intent. The intention of stewardship is to create ownership and responsibility at the point of contact with product, service, and customer, and so we need to give people at the bottom more control over how the change happens. To achieve this demands that we yield on consistency.

Patriarchal strategies producing cosmetic change can work in the short run, but they have little lasting power because they too often address problems of service, performance, and ownership as problems in communication, skill development, and the like, rather than as problems in governance. They treat symptoms without reforming the distribution of power and purpose and ownership that created in the first place the situation we aim to change.

The price we pay for employing cosmetic change strategies is that we have fooled ourselves into counting on a false promise. We have treated ourselves like children, weaned on strategies that will collapse from the lack of a proper foundation, and sown the seeds of our own cynicism and despair over whatever is next.

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Adapted from Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler, 2013). In the last 25 years, Peter Block’s Designed Learning has trained over 1,000,000 staff professionals worldwide using his highly successful Flawless Consulting™ workshops. To find out how you can bring this valuable training to your company or organization, contact our Brazilian affiliate Jacqueline Resch at (21) 258-8213/Email:  Or, you can contact us in the US at 513-524-2224/Email: