Chip Kelly, the famously disruptive NFL coach (disruptive both of opposing defenses and of his own organization in Philadelphia, where he was fired), proposed the axiom “culture beats scheme,” meaning that a team with a strong culture would be able to defeat any game-planning put up against it. And Peter Drucker, the ultimate organizational guru, is supposed to have said in a similar vein that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
So let me today join these wise heads, and advance the following for your consideration: “Culture trumps training.”
My evidence? An extraordinary document from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the government agency charged with overseeing and enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws in the workplace. An EEOC task force spent 18 months looking into harassment in the workplace, issuing its report to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision setting the precedent that harassment amounts to illegal discrimination.
It ain’t working
And what did the report conclude? Among other things, that harassment training hasn’t been effective. “Much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool — it’s been too focused on simply avoiding legal liability,” is how the report put it.
That’s a striking admission, when you think about it. An agency whose very existence depends on the enforcement of laws — on legalistic thinking, if you will — is saying that training that focuses exclusively on those laws isn’t good enough to change behavior.
What is also needed, the EEOC task force concluded, is the right culture. Here’s the quote: “Workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment.” And who is most responsible for creating that culture? The organization’s leaders, of course. “The importance of leadership cannot be overstated,” the EEOC said. “Effective harassment prevention efforts, and workplace culture in which harassment is not tolerated, must start with and involve the highest level of management of the company.”
In addition to stressing culture and accountability, the EEOC proposed some new kinds of training — one of them noncontroversial and the other, to my mind, very controversial.
The former is workplace “civility training,” which instead of targeting unwelcome or offensive behavior based on characteristics protected under employment non-discrimination laws, focuses on “promoting respect and civility in the workplace generally,” as the EEOC puts it. The agency says civility training has two big advantages: 1) It accentuates the positive, and 2) It doesn’t get people’s backs up if they feel they’re being seen as potential harassers. In the EEOC’s words: “The beauty of workplace civility training is that it is focused on the positive — what employees and managers should do, rather than on what they should not do. In addition, by appealing to all individuals in the workplace, regardless of social identity or perceived proclivity to harass, civility training might avoid some of the resistance met by interventions exclusively targeting harassment.”
The latter, a kind of training I think could easily backfire, is known as “bystander intervention training.” This is where employees are taught to speak up, and how to speak up, if they see somebody other than themselves being harassed. The EEOC plucked the idea from the educational arena, where it’s been widely applied, and is now suggesting importing it into the workplace. In theory, this may be a good idea, but if I were an organizational leader, I’d be wary. Employees who are already leery about going to management when they themselves are being harassed — the EEOC document said that roughly three out of four employees who experience harassment don’t report it — may not be very receptive to the idea of stepping into what they perceive as somebody else’s business.
Beyond harassment training
But let’s move on from harassment. Let’s suppose that in your particular organization, you’re less concerned about legal compliance training than you are about expanding employee capabilities through skills, leadership and other development activities. Does the culture argument still hold water?
I think it does.
In the simplest analysis, employees tend to value what they see their leaders value, and disregard what they disregard. If the leaders of your organization support employee learning efforts not only by allocating budget for them, but also by speaking up for them and even participating in them, people are going to get the message that you really, really do want them to expand their talent and skill horizons. Conversely, if people feel that employee learning is window dressing disconnected from the main business thrust of the organization, they’ll probably take it lightly.
That’s why culture trumps training. Or, stated more positively, training needs culture to succeed.
Subscribe to the Leadership Blog
Get the latest research on workplace learning with weekly posts delivered to your inbox