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Do Senior Leaders Trust Development?

Organisations all over the world are struggling to change; they invest millions in consultants, new systems etc. but still the proportion they invest in the development of the people who have to lead and implement these changes is far too small. Is it because they think people don’t need it or they don’t believe development will really help?
I suspect it is a bit of both.  Certainly senior managers are deeply in the thrall of ‘pseudo rationality’; the touching belief that if something makes sense to them it will be equally obvious and compelling to someone else,  - with the adjustment of a reward or sanction or two. Every single piece of significant psychological research into human decision making over the last 25 years would show this is unlikely. In fact you could argue that this is the wishful irrational belief in human nature and behaviour.
Development, as opposed to briefing, instruction and command, has an uneasy track record with senior leaders. Too often development gets distorted, filtered through status needs, poor delivery and a failure to be relevant and focused. We are too often confused in how we develop people using delivery sources which are abstract, over complex and lacking contextual understanding.
Development often confuses theoretical abstractions with practical wisdom and insight.  It is like trying to improve your golf swing by using someone who has a doctorate in the history of golf in continental Europe rather than a golf coach.

Comments on this Post

Kevin Brownsey on 6th November 2012

Hi Steve, I think the key issue with investment in development is understanding what will have a genuine and sustainable impact on performance. I think leaders are generally cynical about linking capability investment with bottomline improvement. We have recently done some research that indicates the single biggest return on 'investment' is not in driving capability from say 70% to 80% but eradicating the anti-behaviours & attitudes which far too aften prevail and are tolerated at senior levels without being addressed. The hypothesis that people will simply get it, which I think you are right to question, is influenced heavily by culture. In high power distance, high uncertainty avoiding cultures people will often follow blindly and obediently. In western cultures this is much less likely and would support your comments above. Frankly I think understanding cultural influences is the key to unlocking the critical areas to invest in from a development perspective. You could spend the rest of your life trying to get managers in some countries to openly challenge their leaders and every penny would be wasted. Not because they dont learn or get it but because it is culturally unacceptable.

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