Phony Baloney: Isn’t Most Leadership Training Just About Techniques to Manipulate People?

Participants who come to leadership training often ask, “Isn’t this just that thing where you repeat what the other person is saying to you? That’s what my boss does when she is trying to manipulate me. It drives me crazy. Does she think I’m stupid?” Like any skill, leadership skills like active listening, constructive confrontation (I-messages), and conflict resolution skills can be learned and used effectively or misused. The misuse can be either intentional or unintentional.

Deliberate misuse leads to a climate of distrust and fear, hardly the sort of workplace most leaders would view as desirable. In such a place, little real work gets done, petty conflict is everywhere, game-playing is rampant, and grievances are commonplace. These are the kinds of organizations where highly adversarial labor-management relations prevent the company from thriving. Any tool can be used badly. A knife can be used to injure, a car to haul stolen goods, a word to humiliate. That doesn’t mean that the tool is no good. It is, rather, an indictment of the person abusing the tool.

Leadership Skills are a Path to Effectiveness

team member effective leadership training skillsUnintentional misuse can be caused by a number of things. The skills weren’t learned properly in the first place. The participant did not practice the skill at work.  Or, senior managers are not reinforcing the skills. Any one of these factors can cause a poor reaction from team members and overall disappointing results from the leadership training.The same can be said of the skills learned in leadership training workshops. It is important that these skills be taught in the spirit intended: as a path to a more effective, team-oriented organization. The senior managers who sponsor the workshops should make it clear from the outset that the objective of the leadership training is for participants to conduct all of their relationships – including those with team members – in cooperative, mutually-satisfying ways, rather than competitive, adversarial ways.

If you play a musical instrument or participate in sports, you understand that there are stages to the learning process. Even with the best of intentions, during the early stages following leadership training, participants are often awkward when using their newly acquired skills. They seem contrived, stiff, and artificial. For example, a student of the trumpet has to learn a lot of rules and techniques: how to compress and shape her lips and blow into the mouthpiece how to finger the valves and change the air pressure to produce the correct notes, how to read music, and so forth. After a lot of hard work, the student may be able to play a C major scale perfectly but she is not making music. Anyone who has listened to someone learning to play the trumpet or the violin knows how painful it can be.

The same thing happens with any skill, including the communication skills learned in leadership training. This too can be painful. Just as with a musical instrument, there are rules and techniques to learn. With time, practice, and support from senior managers, the “student” will progress through the awkward stages and begin to use the skills more naturally. Once the leader has mastered the rules and techniques, she can turn her attention to using the skills as intended: to develop mature, effective work relationships. To make beautiful music!

It is important to help participants understand that they will be clumsy at first and that is normal. One of the easiest ways to overcome the early discomfort with the skills is to let those around you know what you are trying to accomplish. Ask them for help. There is no obligation to be “smooth” or to keep the skills a secret from others. For instance, it is far better to say, “I want to make sure I understand your side of this issue before I draw any conclusions. Let me put this into my own words to see if I am right,” than to pretend to be skilled before you are ready. Let your team members, colleagues, and managers know that your ultimate goal is to develop better relationships.

The Stages of Leadership Training

For leadership training to be effective, it is important to: set the stage by making sure all participants understand the ultimate purpose of learning the skills, make sure that all of the senior managers are ready to support the “graduates,” address the developmental nature of learning the new skills, and coach the participants on how to deal with the awkward phase.

During leadership training developed by Gordon Training, a four-step learning stage model is presented to participants. To learn a new skill, you must go through these stages: unconsciously unskilled (clueless), consciously unskilled (novice), consciously skilled (awkward), then unconsciously skilled (making beautiful music). This sort of discussion can do much to reduce the negative effects of the “phony baloney” problem.

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