The mechanisms of action that comprise business as usual

Origin of business as usual

It’s important to put the intrinsic dysfunctions of business as usual, Plan A, to final rest. You have other uses for your energy supply. While organizational dysfunction (OD) can be created deliberately by human volition, the fact is the occurrence of OD in a Plan A hierarchy with >3 levels is driven by natural law regardless of human characteristics or context circumstances. There is no advantage to discussing other pathways to organization collapse, since natural law is indifferent to humans. In this matter of causes, the vote of natural law is final. Business as usual is the product of human nature.

Human nature is, for all practical purposes, invariant. It evolved during the Stone Age eons and adapted to the hunter/gather operational reality. If you got reality wrong, nature punished you.

The advent of agriculture changed the operational reality to the factors of crop production. If you got local agricultural reality wrong, nature punished you. Social influences, if any, were remote from farmland and, in any case, had nothing to do with the reality of agriculture.

The advent of industrial reality in the 19th century ushered in social and psychological influences to production on an unprecedented and massive scale. Tall hierarchy brings class distinctions and psychological factors that are extremely negative towards productivity. Psychology factors strongly into the operational reality of hierarchical functionality.

The analytical proof of Plan A as systemically dysfunctional is simplicity itself.

Take the organizational roster and sort it by population by class/level into producers and nonproducers (consumers). All the producers, including the foremen that design and assign the task actions of their reports, will comprise about 88% of the roster. These individuals are organizationally bonded together in the production of revenue, with the total responsibility for group performance taken by role by the foreman. His responsibility is defined by system theory – “Whoever picks the parts has responsibility for system behavior.” That means if anyone but the foreman picks a part of the system, he is fully responsible for system performance. This rule of nature applies to man or beast.

It is the classical master/apprentice social relationship and proven successful for millennia. There is no functional role for “management.”

Industrial control theory, mathematical physics, shows by equations how this arrangement is the only way to get the hierarchy to produce anything. Everyone has worked for a foreman, like your mother, and lived the relationship. The value system of the producers is fanatically merit-based and centered around improving productivity in the operational reality.

The 12% of the roster who are not producers have a very different context of their work. Their merit to the organization may or may not be quantitatively ascertainable. As consumers they have a value system that does not include workforce productivity. Their allegiance is to their class and their “professional” role.  They don’t think “system” because, wedded to feedback control, they cannot do anything directly to benefit the system.

The non-producers are subject to the 2½ rule, another absolute of industrial control mathematical physics, which prevents the transmission of actionable quality information (AQI) to the general staff and up. AQI is limited to the bottom 2½ layers of the hierarchy. Like the telephone game, valid, timely information about productivity cannot make it up to the third level before turning into garbage. It is GIGO that characterizes the head shed situation. Their commands to the workforce can only be garbage out and by the time the orders arrive, they are toxic to productivity. GIGO has no workaround. It is final. Such is the nature of all natural law and bad burritos.

In this environment, where the head shed can only issue imprudent commands, the authoritarians are left only with their authority to punish the workforce with legal impunity as an effective tool. Stripped of his inalienable rights, the foreman responds by rigorously following the rules because he can no longer take responsibility for workforce performance outcomes. You know the outcome of that arrangement.

Since the two conditions, tight bondage of the producers to their foremen, and incapacity of management, are beyond dispute, there’s no benefit to describing other ways business as usual is the cause of organizational dysfunction. Hierarchy top-down control fails because it cannot succeed. Personality, credentials, morality, resources, and determination have nothing to do with it.

Nearly every organization is grappling with huge strategic challenges, often with a need to reimagine its very purpose, identity, strategy, business model, and structure. Most of these efforts to transform will fail. And, in most cases, they will miss the mark not because the new strategy is flawed, but because the organization can’t carry it out.

Change to your value system

Positive resocialization of a tall hierarchy is accomplished by displacement of the universal socialization regimen, so discordant to today’s reality, with a socialization that aligns with reality and maintains alignment as reality continues changing – resiliency. The impact of appropriate resocialization changes the reality within which it functions that enable additional benefits obtainable in no other way.

When you go from a society depleted by needless competition to the same roster in collaboration, cooperation, and coordination, the zone of possible group attainments explodes in kind and amount. Opposite to progressive degeneration, the better it gets, the better it gets and everyone involved benefits, win win.

The displacement and replacement is realized one person at a time. Since it is entirely psychological, there is no inertia to overcome. The process that delivers is called hyperlearning. It resembles a pole vault, not a marathon. You either clear the bar of requisites or you fail. There are no part scores. Those who choose to obey authority stay down for good.

The working environment determines the scope and sweep of the keystone role. When the organization is dysfunctional and corrupt and hampered by universal socialization, the role is impossible to fulfill. It is a cognitive dissonance factory and very unhealthy.

The following is a selection from the literature about OD.

Note that the cause/consequence treatment is pure reductionism.

“Organizational dysfunction is the abnormal or unhealthy functioning within an organization that prevents it from fulfilling its purpose. It can have various causes and effects, such as:

  • Unclear values and conflicting priorities that lead to poor execution of strategy and overload of work
  • An ineffective senior team that does not speak with a common voice or align with the leader’s vision.
  • Personal needs over organizational goals that result in conflict, mistrust, and sabotage
  • External threats or challenges that increase group cohesion but also foster autocratic leadership and resistance to change.

Dysfunctional culture that reduces operating efficiency and effectiveness creates a negative work environment.

Organizational dysfunction can have serious consequences for the performance, well-being, and longevity of the organization and its members. Therefore, it is important to recognize and address the signs of dysfunction and create systems that promote resilience, prevention, or removal of dysfunction.

Hidden barrier #1: Unclear values and conflicting priorities

Often, the underlying problem is not this or that strategy, but rather the process by which the strategy was formed — or the lack of any such process. In these cases, strategy is often developed by the leader along with the chief strategy or marketing executive and only then communicated to the rest of the senior team for discussion. If the whole team is not involved clarity and commitment are not possible.

Your organization is suffering from this barrier if you notice any of these signs:

  • Lack of clearly defined and articulated direction — strategy and values — to guide organizational behavior.
  • Conflicting priorities, conflicts over resources, and poor execution of strategy, due to functions and businesses each championing their own priorities.
  • People feeling overloaded, due to everything being labeled a priority.

Hidden barrier #2: An ineffective senior team

Top-team ineffectiveness was reported by lower levels in almost all the organizations we studied. Most of the time, this ineffectiveness comes from the top team not speaking with a common voice about strategy and value. The organization-wide consequences of this were low trust, low commitment to strategic decisions, and different and sometimes conflicting understandings of what the strategy even was. In all these cases, the leaders and their senior teams had not solved the fundamental problem of getting everyone on the senior team in the room to talk about the right things in the right way — honestly and constructively.

Your organization is suffering from this barrier if you notice any of these signs among the senior team:

  • Most of the time spent in meetings is spent on information sharing and updates on short-term operational details — sometimes known as “death by PowerPoint” — rather than on confronting and resolving tough strategic and organizational issues.
  • There is little constructive conflict in meetings. The real decisions get made outside the room.
  • Members of the senior team don’t speak with a common voice about strategy and priorities.

Hidden barrier #3: Ineffective leadership styles

When it comes to individual leadership, there are two ineffective styles: a top-down approach that does not involve team members sufficiently and a laissez-faire, nonconfrontational style. We’ve found you can attribute either style to the leader’s personal aversion to conflict or to the lack of a clearly defined process for opening a constructive debate and carrying it through to a decision (in other words, a decision-making process). As a result, the leader doesn’t learn about what members of the senior team or lower levels really think about what’s not working and why.

Your organization is suffering from this barrier if you notice any of these signs:

  • The leader tends to get lost in the operational details and works “one level below their pay grade.”
  • The leader is not visible. They spend relatively little time on communicating overall strategy or direction or on forcing constructive debate in order to resolve contesting views.
  • The leader does not confront issues or people directly to resolve festering conflicts.

Hidden barrier #4: Poor coordination

Coordination across silos — functions and business units or geographic regions at the corporate level critical to effective execution of strategy  — is always a challenge. Ineffective senior teams whose members defend their fiefdoms are unable to agree on how to reorganize and reshape the culture to overcome naturally occurring obstacles to coordination and collaboration. If there’s friction, then the cross-boundary team structure for integrating value-creating activities either does not exist or is flawed and the lack of honest, collective, and public conversation prevents the organization from recognizing and correcting those flaws.

Your organization is suffering from this barrier if you notice any of these signs:

  • It is painfully hard to execute on cross-functional, business, or geographic initiatives, often even despite good personal relationships.
  • Work on horizontal cross-boundary teams is seen as secondary to meeting the goals for one’s own unit (e.g., function, business, or region).
  • The roles, responsibilities, and decision rights of functions, business units, or regions are unclear.

Hidden barrier #5: Inadequate leadership development

Research has shown that leaders usually develop not through training, but by carrying out challenging new assignments. This requires managers to sacrifice for the larger good by giving up their high potential leaders to other parts of the organization for their development. When this doesn’t occur naturally and regularly it is tied to three hidden barriers already discussed: An ineffective senior team (#2) in a siloed organization with “fiefdoms” (#4) that does not have the perspective or capability to define collaborative organizational values and behaviors it expects of leaders (#1), nor to design a talent-management system that enables the cross-boundary developmental assignments required to develop general management ability.

Your organization is suffering from this barrier if you notice any of these signs:

  • It keeps coming down to the same usual suspects when something important needs to get done.
  • Too few opportunities are provided for leadership and management development.
  • The senior team does not review leadership talent regularly or offer career paths that enable the development of general management capabilities.

Hidden barrier #6: Inadequate vertical communication

Inadequate honest vertical communication is like a game of Telephone. The necessary information about an organization’s strategic direction and values does not circulate from the senior team to the lower levels and the necessary information about the barriers to that direction and those values is not recirculated from the lower levels to the senior team. Rather than productive conversation, there is increased confusion.

Your organization is suffering from this communication barrier if you notice any of these signs:

  • There are few forums for upward communication in which managers and associates can openly and publicly communicate with senior management in a low-risk environment.
  • Open, public discussion of difficult issues goes against the cultural grain.
  • Senior leaders rarely if ever ask lower levels to tell them about problems that stand in the way of the company’s effectiveness or how those problems can be improved.

The inability to confront the first five hidden barriers, and to foster an honest conversation about them between the top team and lower levels, makes it impossible to transform the hidden barriers into the strengths your organization needs to survive.

Start with an assessment. If you recognized your organization in each or most of the six hidden barriers described above, your organization is probably having a hard time transforming itself in some important way. If most of the items in any given hidden barrier category are true, that particular barrier is playing a strong role in undermining the effectiveness and agility of your organization.

The worse things get, the worse they get.

“There is a proverb that says insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That quote is commonly attributed to Albert Einstein, but there is no definitive proof he actually said it. However, being pretty familiar with Albert Einstein as a person, philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, it seems very consistent with the way he thought and lived his life and did his work.

Organizational dysfunction starts with this definition of insanity. The reality is that most organizations that exist, wherever or in whatever sector of the world, have some dysfunction in them. Humans, by nature, are dysfunctional, and since humans make up organizations, it follows that dysfunction, to some degree, will exist.

With quintessential leadership at the top, though, most of the dysfunction can be changed or eliminated so that the organization itself is not dysfunctional. However, when there is no quintessential leadership at the top levels of an organization, the organization becomes dysfunctional. The interesting thing about dysfunction, which is abnormal or impaired function, is that once it becomes the norm, it only gets worse until the whole system – in this case, organizations – fails and eventually dies.

Ironically, as organizations get more dysfunctional, the more effort people in top leadership positions put into attempting to save the organizations from death by doing the same wrong, non-working, and sometimes just plain dumb things that made the organizations so dysfunctional to begin with. When I see this, it reminds me of someone hyperventilating and when the panic of not being able to breathe sets in, the person hyperventilates even more, making it even more impossible to breathe.

It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? It doesn’t make sense, does it? And, yet, in every dysfunctional organization, when the big picture is analyzed to see how the organization got to where it is and what the organization’s response is, it’s the same reaction as a person who’s hyperventilating in panic.

There are many obvious signs of organizational dysfunction and a lack of quintessential leadership at the top, just as there are signs of deepening dysfunction within an organization, but I’ll cover just a few of these here today.

A tell-tale sign of organizational dysfunction is elitism and an upper class (who’s important) and everyone else (who’s not). If you see “us” and “them” or “we’re special and you’re not” in organizational thinking, you’re dealing with organizational dysfunction.

Elitism and upper classes are created by a group of people, starting with the people in top leadership positions, who confer on themselves (and make sure everyone else knows), with no basis for doing so, an elevated and special status above everyone else in the organization. This group pitches this status out like a bone to a dog to the rest of the organization as something to aspire to and it creates minions and sycophants who, driven by a desire to be part of the upper class and have its self-conferred power and nothing else, will do anything, legal or illegal, moral or immoral, right or wrong, good or bad to get there.

These people naturally float to the sub-leadership positions (because all dysfunctional organizations have an elaborate multi-class structure) because they will also agree with everything the elitists say, do, and promote. This is a key reason why organizations get more dysfunctional because there is no one in a leadership position who is a quintessential leader and will say, “This isn’t working and we need to figure out why and how to correct it,” or “That’s wrong; here are the right ways that could be done,” or even “That’s a dumb idea. It’s failed over and over, so it’s time to start over and figure out how to implement a smart, workable idea.”

The irony is that the more dysfunctional an organization becomes, the less disagreement of any kind is tolerated, which means there’s simply no place for quintessential leadership in that organization in a way that will bring the organization out of its dysfunctional state (there will always be a few quintessential leaders even in the worst of dysfunctional organizations, but they will be mostly invisible except to the people who work directly with them).

When an organization reaches extreme dysfunction, then absolute agreement with everything about the organization becomes the mandate that is explicitly communicated to every individual in the organization with some sort of “either you’re with us or you’re against us” or “if you don’t agree, you might as well leave” statement attached and the threat of elimination from the organization if disagreement is found (whether expressed or suspected as a result of intense coercion, which is often employed at this point, to root out dissension).

The dysfunction of an organization begins when that organization structures itself by corporate charters and organizational documents so that the elite are protected and taken care of, while there is no similar protection or care given to the rest of the individuals in the organization (who fall into an “at-will” class – so, yes, there is a bottom class!). Additionally, and this is duplicitous and egregiously wrong on every level, many organizations use these founding documents to ensure that people who’ve been identified as the elite of the elite are the only ones eligible to assume the top positions in the organization. Often, these same organizations will offer a public posture of opening the floor up to democracy in filling these positions, which is dishonest, while the elite have made sure that only the people they want to fill those positions actually meet all the criteria.

And this sign leads to the next sign of organizational dysfunction, which is a lack of trust, a lack of respect, and a lack of loyalty to the organization by the individuals in that organization who are not in the elite class. And the response from the elite is just as baffling. They become more dysfunctional and the organization becomes more dysfunctional.

Instead of the elite looking around them and at themselves and realizing they’ve created and are perpetuating and worsening the organizational dysfunction, they make all the non-elite individuals in the organization the problem.

This is communicated in statements like “we don’t get the respect we deserve” and “nobody cares about loyalty anymore”. The reality is that when people in top leadership positions create and perpetuate dysfunctional organizations, it involves trust-breaking tactics (dishonesty, manipulation, and deceit, to name a few) and the result is a lack of loyalty to the organization (really, who in his or her right mind is going to pledge loyalty to an organization that, first, is not loyal to him or her, and second, has proven a lack of integrity by its actions?).

Once those statements are communicated, then the next step by the elite is to try to dictate and demand respect and loyalty by imposing very constrictive restrictions on the individuals in the organization. This creates a very hostile environment and destroys morale and motivation.

At this point, the dysfunctional organization is already in the actively dying process. Some of the non-elite will start looking for an environment where quintessential leadership exists and they can trust, respect, and have a measure of loyalty (loyalty to humanly-devised organizations should not be absolute because humans – myself included – make mistakes, do things wrong, mess up, but the response to those screw-ups is what matters and what builds or destroys trust, respect, and loyalty) and leave as soon as they are able.

Others will just quit with no other prospects in sight and either drop out of the organizational pool altogether or become entrepreneurs and start their own organizations. And others – this will be the majority – will just quit and stay, ensuring the imminent death of the dysfunctional organization.

The saddest part of this is that dysfunctional organizations don’t have to exist. They shouldn’t exist. But until quintessential leadership is being lived, practiced, and a part of every individual within that organization – quintessential leaders mentor, coach, and provide the opportunity for everyone they interact with, professionally and personally, because that’s who they are, to learn how to be quintessential leaders – we will continue to have and see the increase of organizational dysfunction.

This is the only device available to management to manage that works.

“Stepping away from the jargon for a moment, consider real-world scenarios. How does information enter an organization, and where does it go? This could be explicit information, such as a customer calling a support line, or more implicit information, such as poor sales. Once the information enters the organization, how is it managed to ensure it reaches the right people in a timely manner? And once it reaches those people, how is it responded to? Many of the dysfunctions I have seen have resulted from poor handling of information. So, what causes these deficiencies?

A common cause is a lack of role definition. Consider that any individual in an organization may be exposed to various kinds of information. Not all of it is information that the individual is required to retain or act upon. But unless the individual has a well-defined role that they understand and perform, information may reach them and then go unused or disregarded. Broadly, an organization should have a clear mission, but this does not specify each individual’s role, so each member of the organization must know what information they are responsible for detecting, analyzing, and either acting upon directly or passing it another individual with that responsibility. Using the support line example above, the best practice is to connect the caller with a representative who will read through a defined script and, if necessary, enter a support request into a database so the issue can be tracked. The support representative’s job, then, is to process incoming information and enter it into a system from which it may be reviewed by others. This is a simple case, and often times role definitions are clearest at the organizational boundary. It’s once you get deeper into the organization that roles can become murky, resulting in lost information.

This loss occurs because, in addition to lacking role definitions, there is also a lack of accountability. If someone is responsible for handling certain kinds of information but there are no mechanisms in place to ensure it is handled properly, how does anyone know what’s happening to it? Theoretically, this is why managerial structures exist. Executive-level staff pass their mandates down through layers of management to ultimately be carried out by line employees. However, information must flow in both directions–up and down–to be effective. Poor management can result in poor accountability, which results in lost information. In addition, information must be able to flow laterally, between staff in different groups at the same level of the organization. An example of this would be having a support request passed off to an engineering team to be investigated. Both the support and engineering teams require management to keep the teams on-task and accountable, and the managers enforce standards for passing information between the two teams. When information is not transferred as it should be, the breakdown must be investigated and addressed. Did someone skip a step? Did someone not do their job? Did a technical system malfunction or fail? Corrections must be made to avoid future hiccups.

This all sounds obvious enough, but in practice it becomes difficult very quickly. In my experience, a common cause of these dysfunctions is, ironically, rapid growth. Organizations can be victims of their own success, in that what worked well for a very small team becomes a disastrous state of affairs for a large one. Though perhaps not obvious, it is easy enough to understand when one considers that information diffuses much more readily in a small group than a large one. Another difference between small organizations and large ones is that a small organization is likely to have fewer resources available, in terms of time, labor, equipment, and money. It is also less likely to have a formal structure, so, again, informal structures take shape.

In reality, this manifests as individuals serving not defined roles, but often multiple, complex roles. This occurs out of necessity–there simply aren’t enough people that each one can do a highly specialized job and only that job–but it also forms habits that are harmful as the organization grows. People used to wearing multiple hats (so to speak) have a hard time giving them up later. A growing organization may fail to define roles for its staff, and end up with a situation in which job titles and role expectations are essentially meaningless labels. In such a situation, the best course is to define roles and titles that most reflect what each individual does, then organize around those responsibilities and proficiencies. In other words, let the expert on a particular topic be the expert, rather than letting that expertise hide unseen behind a vague title.

But this is a double-edged sword and can create another common organizational problem, namely: information silos. This is a common organizational concept. Information of particular types tends to pool in one individual, and while it is very useful to have experienced experts, their deep but isolated knowledge also becomes a liability. This risk is amusingly (if morbidly) known as the bus factor because it becomes a question of how many team members could be hit by a bus (or struck down by some other calamity, or even just leaving for another position) before the team becomes incapable of functioning due to a lack of skill or knowledge. Any team or organization with a bus factor of one is essentially a ticking time bomb. The bus factor can be raised through good documentation standards, cross-training personnel, and relying on industry best practices rather than deep, home-grown knowledge. The problem is that all of these take discipline and deliberate effort to implement, and in a busy organization where resources are hard to spare, insurance against future disruptions tends to be prioritized lower than serving the core mission of the team.

As much of a struggle as it is, these are necessary steps for an organization to best carry out its mission–whatever that may be. Changing an entrenched culture of disorganized behavior is, to put it mildly, very difficult, but adapting rapidly to changing circumstances is the only way to survive in today’s fast-paced world. The key is managing the flow of information throughout the organization. Detect what’s relevant, direct it to the right people, act on it efficiently, communicate the results, then do it all over again. It’s not easy, but in the long run it’s not optional.

The tree of woe.

There are different ways to measure the impact of organizational dysfunction on your organization, depending on the type and level of dysfunction. Some methods are objective organizational measures of stress such as tardiness rate, absenteeism rate, grievances filed, clinic and employee assistance program utilization rates, rate and severity of work-related accidents, interdepartmental employee transfer rate, employee turnover rate, performance of specific cost/profit centers, sales volume and revenue, return on equity. These measures can help you identify the symptoms and consequences of organizational dysfunction, but they may not reveal the specific sources or causes of stress.


Leadership training fails to produce good results for various reasons, such as:

  • Lack of context that makes the training irrelevant or ineffective for the specific challenges and opportunities faced by the leaders and their organizations.
  • Lack of commitment and poor teamwork that undermine the motivation and engagement of the leaders and their followers.
  • Lack of resources and weak departmental coordination that limit the availability and quality of the training and its implementation.
  • Lack of communication skills that hinder the transfer of learning and feedback among the leaders, their peers, their superiors, and their subordinates.
  • Lack of follow-up and reinforcement that allow the leaders to revert to their old habits and behaviors without accountability or support.

To improve the results of leadership training, some possible solutions are:

  • Aligning the training with the organizational strategy, culture, and goals to ensure that the training is relevant, meaningful, and impactful for the leaders and their organizations.
  • Creating a learning environment that fosters collaboration, experimentation, and feedback to enhance the engagement and retention of the leaders and their followers.
  • Providing adequate resources and coordination to support the design, delivery, and evaluation of the training and its outcomes.
  • Developing communication skills that enable the leaders to articulate their vision, influence others, listen actively, and resolve conflicts.
  • Ensuring follow-up and reinforcement that help the leaders to apply what they learned, monitor their progress, and sustain their improvement.


“Corporations are victims of the great training robbery. American companies spend enormous amounts of money on employee training and education—$160 billion in the United States and close to $356 billion globally in 2015 alone—but they are not getting a good return on their investment. For the most part, the learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things.

Consider the micro-electronic products division (MEPD) at a company we’ll call SMA, which one of us studied. SMA invested in a training program to improve leadership and organizational effectiveness. MEPD was one of the first business units to implement it, and virtually every salaried employee in the division attended.

Participants described the program as very powerful. For a whole week they engaged in numerous tasks that required teamwork, and they received real-time feedback on both individual and group behavior. The program ended with a plan for taking the learning back into the organization. Pre- and post-training surveys suggested that participants’ attitudes had changed.

A couple of years later, when a new general manager came in to lead the division, he requested an assessment of the costly program. As it turned out, managers thought little had changed as a result of the training, even though it had been inspiring at the time. They found it impossible to apply what they had learned about teamwork and collaboration, because of a number of managerial and organizational barriers: a lack of strategic clarity, the previous GM’s top-down style, a politically charged environment, and cross-functional conflict. “[The previous GM] had a significant impact on our organization, with all of us reflecting him in our managerial style,” a member of the division’s senior team explained during an interview. “We are all more authoritarian than before.”

As a change strategy, training clearly had not worked. It rarely does, as we have found in our research and teaching and in the advising we’ve done at dozens of companies. One manufacturer, for instance, suffered multiple fatalities at its operating plants despite a $20 million investment in a state-of-the-art center for safety training. Participants in corporate education programs often tell us that the context in which they work makes it difficult for them to put what they’re taught into practice.

“A poor return on investment isn’t the only bad outcome of failed training initiatives. Employees below the top become cynical. Corporate leaders may fool themselves into believing that they are implementing real change through corporate education, but others in the organization know better, as we saw in the MEPD example. Why don’t leaders get this? For two reasons:

First, they implicitly view the organization as an aggregation of individuals. By that logic, people must be selected for and developed with the “right” knowledge, skills, and attitudes in order to improve the institution’s effectiveness and performance. So HR defines the requisite individual competencies according to the company’s strategy and then sells top management on training programs designed to develop those competencies, believing that organizational change will follow.

This widely embraced development model doesn’t acknowledge that organizations are systems of interacting elements: Roles, responsibilities, and relationships are defined by organizational structure, processes, leadership styles, people’s professional and cultural backgrounds, and HR policies and practices. And it doesn’t recognize that all those elements together drive organizational behavior and performance. If the system does not change, it will not support and sustain individual behavior change—indeed, it will set people up to fail.


The vast majority of leadership development programmes don’t work. Yes, you read that right, most programmes simply fail to achieve their objectives. This is despite the fact that 80% of companies viewed leadership development as a high priority. Why are so many missing the mark?

There are a number of reasons why leadership development programmes fail, one of which is a human issue – many people forget what they have learnt after the programme has finished. People forget an average of 70% of new information within 24 hours.

So managers return to work after training, and nothing changes. They get stuck in the swamp of day-to-day activities, fall into the same behaviours they had before the workshop, and don’t achieve the increase in performance they expected.

“For the most part, the learning doesn’t lead to better organisational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things.”

80% of programmes fail to produce impact, and this is due to three main factors:

  1. The lack of engagement from managers and leaders prior to the training event. Are we getting individual’s line managers involved? Are we focused on the right learning outcomes?
  2. The quality of the learning event matters but not to the extent we think, even though that’s where we often focus most of our attention.
  3. The follow up is really important. If managers are not supported in applying what they’ve learnt then the business impact is very much reduced.

The problem with leadership development programmes:

According to Training Magazine’s 2018 industry report, total spending on corporate training in the US alone was over $87 billion last year. It really is staggering that, despite organisations spending billions on leadership development, 80% simply don’t work.

An important issue here is that many organisations focus on the training event itself, yet fail to think about how they can engage learners both before and after the event. It’s absolutely crucial for line managers to set the scene beforehand and explain why the participant is going on the course and what is expected of them; and then have a conversation afterwards to evaluate what was learnt and how it is going to be implemented. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, this doesn’t happen, yet from our experience, line manager engagement is the single biggest predictor of a training programme’s success.

The problem with leadership development programmes is that people who attend them don’t actually develop, and this is down to a number of issues:

  • Too much time is spent delivering information and content, and not enough on the hard work of developing the leaders themselves. Most leaders already know what they should be doing – what they lack is the personal development to do it.
  • When a leader returns to work they are overwhelmed by tasks, and it’s difficult to convert what was learned in a programme into actions that address real problems.
  • Most programmes fail to engage the learner’s key stakeholders when back at work. As a result, leaders not only miss out on the support, advice, and accountability of colleagues but they also often experience resistance from stakeholders who are surprised and disrupted by changes participants make in their behaviour.
  • Leadership development programmes are designed as events rather than as processes over time. Programmes give learners a short-term boost, but not the ongoing follow-up to embed new behaviours into new habits.

Training on its own is one of the top reasons why leadership development fails. Learning must be blended with a variety of inputs over a set amount of time. More emphasis needs to be placed on personal development, facilitating solution discussions, networking, and exposure. It’s important that leaders and managers are involved throughout the whole process before, during and after, and include appropriate coaching with a person whose focus is on the personal development needs of the individual.

Four steps for effective leadership development:

Here are a few tips on how to ensure leadership development programmes are a success:

  1. Engage managers and leaders in the learning process. Senior leaders must get involved in the learning process. How can you expect your team to be engaged if you don’t get involved? We believe in engaging leaders before, during and after the learning process in order for it to truly work, while setting correct learning outcomes alongside.
  2. Focus on personal development. The need to focus on personal development is key! Creating an approach where managers can learn about other experiences, issues, and challenges, and develop practical solutions.
  3. Think of it as a process, not a one-off programme. Don’t buy into the ‘one-off ‘ programme as it doesn’t work. What you do after the training event is way more important than what you do on the training day. In fact, it’s all that matters!
  4. Don’t just train leaders, coach them. Introduce coaching between modules. It’s all about the blend. Encourage coaching with leaders who have the individual’s personal development in mind.
A law of nature, not of man.

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