October 2021
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TD Magazine

Consider Office Hierarchy in Training Initiatives

Friday, October 1, 2021

Junior peers and their ease with technology can threaten senior workers' status.

Do you factor hierarchy into the rollout of upskilling and reskilling initiatives? With technology driving much of the workplace transformation efforts today, new research suggests senior workers' status can be threatened by training efforts if they believe only their junior colleagues will benefit.


Katherine C. Kellogg, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management professor, along with co-researchers Jenna E. Myers from MIT, Lindsay Gainer from Mass General Brigham hospital, and Sara J. Singer from the Stanford University School of Medicine, authored a study that examines the adverse effects hierarchy can have on training initiatives.

"When trainees have an opportunity for status mobility, even up an illegitimate hierarchy, they may embrace the situated learning of new tools and techniques, because doing so allows them to exit the lower-status trainee group and join the higher-status trainer group," the authors write in the study. That can undermine senior workers' perceived status.

"Workplace training initiatives that involve training employees in new technologies such as sophisticated analytics, AI [artificial intelligence], or robotics are likely to create friction between senior employees and more junior employees with greater skills in information technology or computer science," Kellogg explains in an interview with TD magazine. "The more-senior employees are accustomed to receiving respect and deference from others in the organization based on their tenure, role, and expertise. Their status is threatened when those without the same level of tenure, role, or expertise become just as likely to learn a valuable new skill set as them."


In an MIT Sloan Management Review article she wrote, Kellogg discusses ways to mitigate resistance to upskilling and reskilling efforts. When upskilling, she says choosing employees who have the least difficulty adapting to new ways of working—often the junior talent—to be the trainers may seem logical, but it can be counterproductive. In the article, she advises instead to "create peer training programs that rotate both senior and junior employees through the role of trainer."

For reskilling efforts, Kellogg's article recommends that leaders should "sell the training" based on employees' concerns and interests, which often boil down to security for senior workers and advancement opportunities for junior staff. The big takeaway: Roll out workplace transformation training programs with intention. When strategy undergirds transformation, talent development professionals can minimize backlash and ensure employees gain the skills and training they need to move the organization forward.

About the Author

Derrick Thompson is a former writer/editor for ATD.

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