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Why Compulsory Leadership Programs Don’t Work: The Role of “Choice” and “Readiness” in Vertical Development
Over the years, I’ve had my share of facilitating learning programs for reluctant groups of employees, who were there not because they had chosen the learning but because somebody else in their organisation had thought they needed it. After witnessing all flavours of resistance and studying in-depth the lived process of psychological growth, I have come to believe that the choice to participate and readiness for learning are absolutely fundamental to the impact of any learning program. Without one or both of them, learning initiatives are bound to be at best ‘momentary fun’ and at worst a painful obligation - a chore for all involved. Without these two conditions, I don’t believe meaningful change can happen.
My most memorable experience of participant reluctance was over 15 years ago, in the ‘good old days’ when ‘soft skills’ was a buzzword and companies were investing massively in ‘upgrading’ the skills of their workforce - putting people through countless programs in hope of teaching them to communicate better, delegate, sell, deal with ‘difficult’ customers or give more constructive feedback.
The client was a large multinational and the topic was ‘public speaking’ and ‘presentation skills’. I was part of a larger team of facilitators working with that client and I had had no involvement in stakeholder work leading up to the workshop - I was there to deliver on a piece of content for a group I only knew the basic facts about. They were all senior people, all medical doctors, part of an internal ‘workplace health’ department in their organisation. I was only a couple of years into my work as a professional facilitator and the participants could easily have been my parents’ age at the time.
I still vividly remember welcoming them into the room, introducing myself, and getting barely audible ‘hello’s’ and frosty looks. I remember us all sitting down in a half-circle and people sitting awkwardly, arms crossed, frowning and giving monosyllabic answers to my introductory questions. Nobody seemed to have any expectations from the two days and nobody seemed willing to contribute in any useful way. Some people threw in snarky comments and others seemed in total ‘freeze’ mode.
Not even 10 minutes in, I was feeling my stomach getting heavier, my heart racing, and the feeling of impending doom lurking in a corner of my consciousness. I remember the repetitive thought - “these people don’t want to be here” - followed by a slightly comforting thought - “it clearly isn’t personal, their attitude is not a reflection of me, they’ve been like this since they arrived, so something must be going on for them in the background” - and then another -” there’s no way we can spend two days in this energy!”. Then a question crossed my mind: “Should I carry on as if nothing’s happening and try ‘warming them up’ or should I just call it out and come what may?”. I chose the latter - my first conscious act of bravery in a workshop and one that stands, to this day, as a pivotal moment of learning that set the foundation for who I later became. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I paused the workshop and addressed the group:
“I’m noticing most, if not all of you, don't seem to enjoy being here. I realise there must be context playing out for all of you that I have no idea about. I have a lot of respect for the knowledge and experience you collectively hold and I believe your time is very valuable - nobody should spend two days doing something that doesn’t make sense for them. I am here to hold a space for your learning and my only intention is to make it a useful experience. But to do that I need to understand what is happening for you. Would you like to please share with me a bit more about how you came to be invited to this workshop?”
There was a long pause. People looked at each other. I felt something shifting in the room. The very fact that I had acknowledged their resistance seemed to strike a chord with the group. Then, the very person who had been sarcastic a few minutes before spoke up. She shared they had all been sent to this course by their department head, after receiving negative ratings on their annual evaluations. “Presentation skills” was identified as an ‘area of improvement’ and this course was like the ‘bitter pill’ they all had to ‘swallow’. Their leader’s feedback to them all had been harsh and condescending. They had been told they had ‘a problem’ and needed to ‘address it’. The date for the course had been chosen without consultation and presence had been made mandatory. Getting into the room and seeing me - a very young facilitator - did not help at all. They all had felt belittled and disrespected, believed they were wasting their time, and were thinking of the mountain of emails piling up while they were stuck there, with me.
Her share was met with nods all around. I drew in breath and said:
“Thank you for your honesty. I was not aware you had been forced to participate in this workshop. I look around and see a roomful of very mature people, who hold a wealth of lived experience, from whom I have a lot to learn. I am definitely not here to ‘teach’ you anything from a position of authority. I have no intention of holding you here against your will. As one who spends her life speaking in public and loving it, I would be very happy for all of us to explore this topic of presenting if that is something you might be keen to do and think there might be any value in it for you, regardless of what your boss wants. I would invite you into a safe space where we can hone our skills and experiment with public speaking in a practical and playful way. I could also just mark the attendance sheet and respectfully give you back your freedom if you wish to do something else with your time. You are the ones who should choose how you use your time and I will respect your decision, whichever it is.
I remember the silence again. This time it was less tense. More relieved. Brows seemed to relax and I even thought I saw someone smiling. They looked at each-other again and seemed to reach an understanding. “I’ll stay”, someone said. Others nodded.
What followed were two days that I still remember, like a shining beacon among hundreds of forgotten experiences. I even remember the themes of their practice presentations- which I encouraged them to build around topics they were genuinely passionate about. Most were, unsurprisingly, not work-related. The lady who had started off most aggressive and had spoken up for the group shared her battle with cancer with all of us. Her presentation was about having a voice and speaking your truth, as life is too short to do otherwise. People had tears in their eyes when she finished. Every one of those people could and did confidently speak in public when they genuinely felt it was an invitation, not an obligation. And I was never the same facilitator after that workshop. I learned how crucial choice is to a successful learning experience.
I started to say “no” to projects where participation was compulsory. I advocated with my organizational clients for the benefits of having participants’ buy-in for any program. Once I had my own learning company and total creative freedom around projects, I became bolder in co-creating with my clients and co-designing learning that they authored as much as I did. The more people were involved in the decision of what and how to learn, the more they were involved in the delivery of learning or stimulated to teach and learn from each-other instead of expecting an expert to deliver - the more motivated they were to give it energy, to share, practice, experiment, and to integrate what they were learning.
In my Ph.D. research, I looked at a prestigious cross-sector executive program where leaders had been invited based on being identified as top talents in their organizations. Most had joined not only willingly, but enthusiastically. Yet, I found that the motivation behind that enthusiasm still impacted people’s level of choice in fully participating and the value they were taking from the program. The leaders who had joined mainly because they felt it would help their careers to participate, seemed less likely to progress in their vertical development than those who had joined from pure intrinsic motivation, driven by curiosity and an urge to learn and grow themselves. The latter were more likely to be scored at later stages of development post-program and were more willing to lean into discomfort during the learning and take risks, turning insights into meaningful action. In short, choice seems to matter in very intricate and subtle ways and the more internal locus of control participants have (the sense that they are responsible for their own learning) the more likely they are to benefit from the experience.
As my own research and practice progressed, it became clear that not only choice was crucial for impactful learning, but also developmental readiness.
“You cannot stretch a person more than a couple of steps beyond their current worldview”
had said one of my earliest and most cherished coaching teachers - Sir John Whitmore. So if you don’t have a feel for their worldviews, for the lens they are carrying, it’s very hard to know what the right stretch is.
Developmental readiness impacts how much leaders gain from a learning experience
I’ve always been intrigued by the ways in which certain people seem to simply absorb a learning experience and emerge genuinely transformed, while others seem to go through the same experience and remain unmoved. While choosing to engage in the learning, to begin with, is a key prerequisite for impact, something else seems to be at play. That ‘something’ is developmental readiness.
Participants who are, for various reasons, on the cusp of a developmental shift - having reached the limits of their current stage of development, and feeling pushed by life towards a tipping point, seem most likely to measurably grow from a learning program. Those who enter a program nudged either by a sense of possibility, or often discontent with the status quo, those who are struggling with their own limitations, which they are aware of and fed up with, those who are hungry for personal change and keep saying “I can’t go on like this!” - are often the ones who progress most and fastest.
Considering participants’ current stage of development in the design of a program can help harness that developmental readiness in very targeted ways. Understanding where people are at in their growth can help learning designers and facilitators calibrate the right kind and level of developmental discomfort, alongside sturdy, safe holding spaces to create psychological safety and the right conditions for further development. And those conditions are not the same for each group and for each organizational context.
For example, groups of leaders who operate mostly from an ‘expert’ worldview might need a completely different learning experience, centered on challenging their certainties, exploring alternative points of view, and nudging them into small steps towards self-reflection or a shift from task-focus to goal-focus. On the other hand, a group of leaders operating from later stages - such as Achiever or Redefining/Individualist - might be up for deeper exploration of emotional and relational landscapes, or work with polarities or systemic perspectives. Often groups are made up of a breadth of developmental stages and needs, which only makes the task more interesting (and challenging) for program designers and facilitators.
And speaking of facilitators, checking our own motivations might make a big difference to our clients.
Checking your motivations as a facilitator
I’ve learned something else from that early pivotal experience. Overcoming participant reluctance, and seeing attitudes shift from “frosty” to “inspired” can bring a huge ego boost to a facilitator. It can make you feel like some sort of magician, melting people’s hearts, opening their minds, getting them from “I don’t want to be here” to “This has been mindblowing” through the sheer power of your charisma and passion for the topic.
I’ve met fabulously talented facilitators who were masters at turning a skeptical room around. I’ve had conversations with some of them, who spoke about getting a huge thrill from witnessing a passive group come alive with excitement and even feeling more stimulated by reluctant groups than they do by enthusiastic ones. I’m no stranger to that thrill myself. Yet, over time, I’ve come to reflect on how our motivations as facilitators might impact our choices of clients, projects, and ultimately our impact - both in the room, on the day - and also more long-term, on the organizations we are serving.
I’ve started to question the usefulness of the ‘facilitator’s thrill’. What is the true value of working with reluctant groups, even when we see reluctance turning into buy-in, thanks to our skillful handling of the group? Are we really helping create sustainable transformation by delivering a seamless experience of inspiration? Or might profound change come about more readily when we take the longer, less glamorous road of gaining early stake-holder and participant buy-in; working only with the willing; co-creating; doing less for our clients, and supporting them to do more for themselves - such as to run their programs internally; helping them minimize off-site and classroom-based learning and create more on-the-job, in-action or community-based learning? Might our clients gain more if we, facilitators, stepped away from the limelight and instead empowered them to shine?
I have fewer answers and certainties and many more questions than 15 years ago. What I do know is that learning should be a choice. Nowadays I for one get way more joy in working with those who have freely chosen to be there and who feel ready and willing to step into the discomfort of change. I also get a lot of joy when I see my clients taking full ownership of their own learning and leading it themselves. Sometimes success is making yourself redundant. And that has turned, slowly and surely, into my biggest aspiration.
If you are an L&D expert, facilitator or learning designer, how do you see the role of choice and readiness? How do you make sure your program participants are primed for learning? What’s your experience of the ‘facilitator’s thrill’?
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