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The Training Effectiveness Gap


Thu Jul 20 2023

The Training Effectiveness Gap

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What has had the greatest influence on who you are as a leader? Your answer probably won’t cite that leadership training you attended three years ago or an online course you took. It’s more likely that the thing that’s had the greatest impact on your behavior as a leader isn’t a thing at all, but a person—a coach, a mentor, a trusted manager.

This is borne out not just on a micro-level, but a macro one. According to recent research conducted by Harvard Business Review Analytics Services, leadership skills training is the most commonly used development method among the 665 organizational leaders surveyed. But only 35 percent of respondents rated skills training as very effective in achieving their desired results, compared to 60 percent for coaching.


The authors of this Harvard Business Review piece sum up the situation many organizations find themselves in: “American companies spend enormous amounts of money on employee training and education … but they are not getting a good return on their investment.”

So why do organizations keep investing in training if it’s widely acknowledged to be ineffective?

One contributor is our struggle to make decisions with long-term outcomes in mind. Most humans are programmed with present bias, the tendency to choose a small gain in the present versus a larger reward in the future. Another contributor is something called status quo bias, the propensity to want to maintain what we have going. And finally, there’s the bandwagon effect, the tendency to do something because we think others in our network are doing it, too.

For many organizational leaders, training offers all these things: the promise of short-term gains, the ease of sticking to the status quo, and the feeling that you are following the path of other smart people. If your organization has always done leadership training, it doesn’t take extra work to get buy-in, so it might seem like you’re saving time. It’s a scaled solution, and it appears to work while it’s happening.

The problem is that even the best training sessions aren’t designed to do what most organizations want them to do: enable leaders to learn, grow, and sustainably change their behaviors. For one thing, virtual trainings or classes have anemic completion rates—generally between 5–15 percent—and even when courses are completed, most participants forget about 75 percent of what they learn within six days.


The Science Behind Coaching Effectiveness

Coaching, on the other hand, is a research-backed method for changing behavior at the individual, team, and organizational levels. We’ve found from our data at Torch that 100 percent of coaching participants changed in at least one way from their engagement, and the average participant changed eight ways.

Some of these changes can predict whether someone stays at the organization or moves up: 94 percent of coaching participants changed in at least one way that’s related to retention, and 89 percent changed in a way related to promotion. And when leaders are coached, their teams benefit. Research shows that direct reports of coached managers are more likely to be satisfied at work, stay, and be committed to their organizations. At the organizational level, the International Coaching Federation has linked coaching to increased performance, retention, and engagement).

Three key characteristics make coaching more effective than training:

1. It’s tailored to the individual and their organization, allowing them to design a program that speaks to their growth opportunities and apply it to their day-to-day work.

2. It’s relational, built to create the psychological safety necessary for coaching participants to open up and grow through what’s known as the “coaching alliance.”


3. It’s continuous, meaning that coaching participants get regular feedback and are held accountable by their coach.

Leadership training has its place in an L&D strategy. But for organizations wanting to see sustained behavior changes and a return on their investments, there’s another, and more effective way to get there: Invest in powerful relationships with coaches that have a ripple effect on organizational culture, engagement, and performance.

To learn more about how the most successful organizations are thinking about coaching, read our full report: Leveraging Coaching and Mentoring to Create More Effective Leaders.

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