Study: Yes, leadership training works and people like it
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Study: Yes, leadership training works and people like it

Does leadership training work? Opinions range from “Absolutely,” to “Don’t waste your money.”

Well, be assured that data conclusively answers this question. Yes, it works.

The data we’re talking about comes from an exhaustive meta-analysis of 335 studies of leadership training effectiveness. These studies were compiled, computer-coded, and statistically analyzed by a team of organizational behavior, industrial psychology and management professors from Rice University and the University of Central Florida.

Significant positives

The researchers were interested in finding out how leadership training does across several dimensions: 1) learning, 2) skills transfer and behavior change, 3) positive effect on organizational outcomes such as ROI, and 4) positive or negative reaction to the training from trainees. Lo and behold, the statistical analysis showed significant positive results in all these categories.

To determine whether the results of training were significant, the researchers used a measure of effect size — the degree to which one variable affects another — known as Cohen’s D. This measurement standardizes the difference in means between sets of data. Roughly speaking, a Cohen’s D score of 0.2 signifies a small effect of one variable on another, 0.5 a medium effect and 0.8 a large effect.

The analysis found that leadership training scored 0.82 on effective transfer of skills, 0.73 on learning, 0.72 on outcomes and 0.63 on positive trainee reaction. These are strong measures of effect, demonstrating that leadership training is in fact quite worthwhile.

Breaking it down

The meta-analysis went farther than just a top-line assessment of leadership training. It also looked at the relative effectiveness of a handful of aspects of training, such as whether it was conducted on- or off-site, whether it incorporated feedback, and whether the training was given as a single event or spaced out over time. For each of these aspects, the analysis looked at its effect on learning, skills transfer and outcomes.

Here’s a summary of these findings:

  • Training that featured information, demonstration and practice of leadership techniques scored 1.24 in Cohen D effect size when it came to learning effectiveness, a whopping 2.20 in skills transfer, and 0.45 in outcomes. Those scores compared with 0.60, 0.43 and 0.60 for just information and practice.
  • Training that featured feedback for trainees scored 0.79 on learning, 1.40 on skills transfer and 0.84 on outcomes, compared with 0.71, 0.50 and 0.70 for no feedback.
  • Training that was spaced out across a period of time scored 0.74 on learning, 0.92 on skills transfer and 0.48 on outcomes, compared with 0.92, 0.45 and 0.18 for single-event training. (The slightly higher score for single-event in the learning category wasn’t statistically important, the researchers said.)

More findings

Further findings:

  • Training that was done face-to-face scored 0.78 on learning while virtual training delivered a likewise solid score of 0.54.
  • Training that was done on-site significantly outscored off-site training (such as conference events) in all categories.
  • Training where attendance was voluntary had a lower impact on organizational outcomes compared to mandatory training because fewer people attended. However, learning scores were higher on voluntary training (where attendees are self-selected and typically more highly-engaged learners).
  • Training conducted by an external trainer scored 0.74 on learning, 0.52 on skills transfer and 0.69 on outcomes, compared with 0.98, 0.45 and 0.69 for training led by an internal trainer.

Implications for implementation

Summing up the implications of their findings, the researchers said organizations implementing leadership training may want to:

  1. Make training compulsory if the goal is improving organizational outcomes, but allow voluntary participation on topics that may not be mission-critical to all
  2. Spread out the training over time to optimize skills transfer and organizational outcomes
  3. Make sure at least part of the training is trainer-led as opposed to fully self-administered, and
  4. Build feedback into the training to ensure skills transfer and behavior change

Good reactions

Did I mention that the study also showed people liked leadership training? The researchers noted that while employees may feel they’re not going to like training beforehand, they tend to shift their opinion during and after the training. That’s because they come to perceive the training as a sign that the organization supports and is interested in them.

And indeed, the data from the meta-analysis shows this happening. As we noted, positive reactions to leadership training scored a significant 0.63 overall on the Cohen D effect-size measure. These reactions were especially pronounced when the training included information, demonstration and practice (1.47) and when feedback was part of the training (1.13).

All in all, the meta-analysis provides a lot of support for training and development managers who want to implement or beef up leadership training in their organizations.

This blog entry is based on the following research study:  Lacerenza, C. et al. (2017). Leadership Training Design, Delivery, and Implementation: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(12), 1686-1718.





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