Why training works in some companies, and fails in others
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Why training works in some companies, and fails in others

Why is training effective in some organizations, but falls flat in others? Is it something about the training itself? The way it’s delivered? The quality of the workforce?

All of these play a role, of course. But a recent study suggests that a major factor is managers’ beliefs about the ability of people to grow and develop.

Some managers think talent is something you’re born with or not, and that “talent development” is a waste of time and effort. Others think that talents aren’t fixed – that they can be improved upon through hard work.

Deep-seated beliefs

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has studied how beliefs shape learning. Her research has found these two competing belief systems – a “fixed” mindset and a “growth” mindset – have a profound effect on whether learning is effective.

These belief systems are so powerful that scientists can identify which mindset a person has just by looking at his or her brain waves.

Not surprisingly, Dweck’s research shows that these beliefs significantly influence individual learning behaviors – for example, how people respond to feedback and how they react to challenges.

But they also help explain why some organizations get big returns from training while others see little or no benefit. Training can only succeed in organizations where managers think people are capable of growth.

‘The born salesperson’
Consider a sales manager who believes that great salespeople are born and not made. That belief will affect many, many organizational decisions – for example, who gets hired, what’s expected of them, how they’re compensated, and where they spend their time.

All of those decisions will conspire to create a culture in which any training – no matter how good – will fail. And, of course, such failures will reinforce the sales manager’s original belief.

Sounds pretty hopeless.

But there’s good news: Follow-up research shows that it’s easier to change this “fixed” mindset than you might think.

Building on Dweck’s work, a group of researchers examined managers’ beliefs and how it affected their approach to coaching and training.

The researchers hypothesized that managers with a fixed mindset likely wouldn’t put much effort into talent development, and that’s what they found: Fixed-mindset managers were far less likely to train their people, and their employees rated them as poor coaches.

Changing their minds
In a second study, researchers wanted to see if they could change managers’ mindsets.

An initial questionnaire found that over half of the managers possessed a fixed mindset. The study then divided the fixed-mindset managers into two groups – a workshop group and a control group.

Managers in the workshop group were shown research that proved people’s capacity to develop their talents through hard work. Managers in the control group attended two “placebo” workshops on an unrelated topic.

Six weeks later, the managers were asked to participate in a coaching exercise. The managers who’d attended the growth workshops were more willing to coach and offered more and higher quality coaching suggestions than the control group.

Action steps
If your organization is like the one in the study, more than half of the managers are walking around with a belief system that sabotages training. So if you’re trying to create fertile ground for training, a good place to start is by educating managers about the ability of people to improve with training.

To change that mindset, do what the researchers did. They found that two 90-minute workshops were enough to change the managers’ beliefs.

Hold your own workshop and show your managers the research. (You can start with the sources cited below.) Include case studies or examples from your own organization.

While you’re at it, point out that a “growth” mindset could help managers’ personal development as well: If they believe in their own capacity for growth, they’re more likely to achieve more in their own lives.

You may need to do the same with learners as well. For example, you might want to start a session by asking learners whether they think talent is fixed or can be developed. Get them to believe in their own capacity for growth, and they’ll get more out of training.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.
Heslin, P. A., et al. (2006). Keen to help? Managers’ implicit person theories and their subsequent employee coaching. Personnel Psychology, 59(4), 871-902.

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