Why Leadership & Team-Development Programs Fail

Research shows that most development programs fail to deliver expected returns. Here, experts offer tips to master the real drivers of behavior for sustainable change.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013
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 Every organization wants to maximize the potential of their leaders and employees in order to achieve superior results. In fact, significant investments are made in that aim to improve performance by changing the way leaders, employees or teams behave. However, research shows that most development programs fail to deliver expected returns. Too often, there is more effort put into the design of the program, instead of what people need to experience in order to develop. If executives understood the mechanics of the mind and what it takes to create sustainable behavioral change, they would rethink their approaches to leadership and employee development and challenge their current beliefs about how behavioral change actually happens. 

We now know so much about how the brain learns and how people develop. Recent advances in neuroscience are highlighting connections between cognitive and emotional functions that have the potential to revolutionize the way we develop our leaders and employees. In particular, the relationship between learning and emotion and what needs to happen in the brain for learning and behavioral change to take place. Those who are developing leadership and team development programs don't always incorporate these advances in their approaches being. 

The following are the key reasons why most leadership- and team-development programs fail:

Reason #1:

Lack of Self-Awareness of Participants

Personality assessments are often used in developmental programs to help leaders and team members to increase their self-awareness. However, existing approaches focus on strengths/weaknesses or preferences, leaving out insight into unconscious patterns of behavior and emotions that typically get in the way of development, despite everyone's best intentions.  For leaders or employees to develop, they must understand how this happens for them by being aware of their nature, emotions, and how their brain is organized. This allows them to know how they process information and what gets in the way -- fear, embarrassment, etc. -- of trying new behaviors and shifting from unproductive reactions to other people and work situations.   

Reason #2:

Expecting Behavioral Competency Systems to Develop Behavior

Most behavioral competency systems use a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn't account for the range of differences in personality styles and individual preferences across leaders. They don't consider the dynamic nature of the personality of the leader and the subjective responses of the employee.  Leaders can believe they are changing their behavior when employees experience them to be exactly the same. Defining how we expect people to behave can raise anxiety levels in leaders and employees, causing the initiatives to fail as the brain cannot develop when it is in a self-protective state.  Competency models that are not integrated with an understanding of the different personality styles of leaders and employees and that don't have an ongoing experiential development program with a sound accountability strategy are doomed to fail.  

Reason #3:

No Ongoing Engagement in Development

When we learn or experience new things, it is stored in our short-term memory. When we first use what we have learned it takes energy to retrieve it and easier to go with what we automatic patterns of behavior. Only through conscious repeated practice and emotional experiences does it then move to our long-term memory banks where it then becomes easier to retrieve. This means that a workshop, reading a book or a couple of coaching sessions will not have any long term affect without consistent follow up and repeated experiences. Our brains are capable of creating new patterns of behavior and new pathways, but just knowing doesn't change our behavior or habits of mind. Unfortunately, how our brains function and what it takes to develop them is not incorporated in most leadership and team development programs. Without ongoing engagement in a development process, people act on automatic pilot, reverting to what they have always done.

Reason #4:

Believing Content is More Important than People

It is a basic and all too common misunderstanding that training content itself is most important; therefore, leadership and team development approaches focus on skills and behaviour instead of what drives behavior and what leaders and employees need and feel during the development process. The underlying belief seems to be that development is solely a cognitive activity and on its own can produce changes in behaviour. While this is a compelling and potentially time and money-saving idea, it simply does not work. Leaders and employees are emotional, social beings and program development needs to be inclusive of the whole person and how their brain is organized be considered for development to be effective. Left to implement new behaviors on their own without engagement from others, most leaders and employees will not change. 

A Whole-Person Approach to Leadership and Team Development

Leaders and employees alike need to train their rational brain to work in sync with their emotional brain if they are to shift from self-protective behaviors that get in the way of achieving their potential. As humans, it is only by understanding how to harness our emotions that sustainable development and behavior change occurs. Understanding how a leader or employee's brain is wired and the emotional drivers of their behavior is critical to their ability to engage in learning and developing.

The trends indicate that increasingly, employers will use personality assessments that help us to understand the emotional drivers of behavior, psychological needs, emotional intelligence and behavioral competence in their HR strategies and leadership and development programs.  Why? The bottom line is that money drives the need for inclusion. Studies show the total costs associated with turnover can reach as high as 90 percent to 200 percent of an employee's individual salary and less quantifiable repercussions like diminished morale and lost productivity. As a result, organizations are using personality assessments in their leadership, team and employee development programs.

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Brain-based personality systems reveal the neurophysiology of behavioral change and offer more than just insight into a person's behavioral style. According to Warren Birge and Deborah Dorsett, executive consultants with Personalysis Corp., an instrument that measures instinctive dimensions as well as rational and social ones should be used to gain a deeper understanding of one's personality. Instinctive elements measuring how the person will behave during prolonged stress, multiple deadlines and competing priorities; emotional elements that predict how a leader or employee will bond and relate to others and behave when upset, disappointed or embarrassed; and rational elements that show how leaders will make decisions and manage information.   

Leadership and team-development programs need to change from cognitive and information driven approaches in a workshop or training session to ongoing, experiential learning activities that engage the emotions of leaders and employees positively in a variety of settings. If these critical pieces are left out of training and development efforts, organizational leaders will continue to be frustrated and workers are unlikely to reach their full potential. And loss of potential translates to losses for the bottom line. 

Going Beyond Traditional Development Programs

Increasingly, organizations are using a new paradigm for training and developing their people. They are looking beyond traditional programs, shifting the focus from what is being taught to who is doing the learning and what they need to be successful. This model takes a whole-person approach that puts the employee's personality and needs first. Rather than focusing on the behavioral competency, new development programs are people centered, putting the personality and their intrinsic satisfaction first.

Leadership and team development programs created with the whole person in mind, allow us to understand and address the needs of people being trained. Understanding what makes themselves and their employees function optimally; providing experiences where employees talk about what they need and feel enables leaders to better relate to and lead employees -- and better understand their own emotional reactions, as well.  Again, the focus is on developing the person, not just their behavior.

Anne Dranitsaris, Ph.D. and Heather Hilliard are Toronto-based experts in personality and behavioral change, working with senior leaders and leadership teams globally, as well as the authors of Who Are You Meant To Be? A Groundbreaking Step-by-Step Process for Discovering and Fulfilling Your True Potential.


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