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When workshops don't work

Four lessons learned about talent development effectiveness

January-19-15, published by Cheddi Suddith

tags : Development, Talent, Workshop


Amidst the growing popularity of “technology-based” and “social-learning” types of training and development methods, the question bears asking: do workshops or facilitator-based sessions still constitute a value-added method for developing talents, leadership and teams within organizations?


In my experience, this training and development method remains quite popular. Unfortunately, experience has also repeatedly highlighted what is to me an unfortunate reality: workshops sometimes fall short of having any meaningful impact on participants by helping them change performance-related behaviours. 


There are many possible reasons why workshops often fail to deliver significant behaviour changes in participants. Drawing on observations from my practice as a consultant and facilitator, I propose to illustrate four fairly common organizational obstacles I have witnessed which significantly undermined the effectiveness of this and potentially other people-development methods.


1. The understated “Why”

A few years ago, I facilitated a workshop that had been organized in a relatively short time-frame and thus was not conducive to any of our pre-workshop methodology aimed at properly understanding and communicating the desired outcomes. 


During this workshop, I facilitated an exercise which consisted of asking participants to assess their level of proficiency in the given topic using a 10-point scale. Amongst other things, this helps facilitators anticipate participants’ readiness to learn by attempting to determine how much subjective “room for improvement” they perceive to have about the topic at hand. A higher score would indicate little perceived room for improvement and might therefore generate some “why am I here?” attitudes.  


If the topic of a workshop has been well selected, and participants are invited based on real developmental needs, one would expect self-ratings on this exercise to be moderate at best. However, as was the case with this example, when the majority of workshop attendees rate themselves at nine or ten on a 10-point scale, as a facilitator, you know it’s going to be a long day. You also begin to question the preparation of the workshop. 


To my own dismay, I have regularly seen participants say they had no idea why they were invited to a workshop. Bearing in mind what we know about the power of “Why”, it should come as no surprise that lack of preparation and explanation of the purpose and benefits of a workshop presents a significant obstacle to achieving its full effectiveness. After all, anyone would struggle to get motivated for something if they don’t know what it is and how it can benefit them or their organization.


2. Too much, too fast

Do you remember “cramming” for exams back in high school, college or university? What percentage of that knowledge would you say you have retained to this day? Moreover, how much of what you retained do you actually use or practise regularly? I’d guess that the majority of readers could sum up their answers in two words: “very little”. 


The same seems to sometimes apply to certain workplace training and development initiatives today. Lured by the excitement of conveying or teaching a lot of relevant content, workshop designers often fall into the “cramming trap” and fail to properly balance the amount of content with practice and mastery time. In other cases, they simply don’t know what is truly relevant on the job, so they use a “throw everything in and hope something sticks” approach.


Whatever the reason may be, jamming too much content into one session and expecting people to develop more quickly than what is actually possible can represent significant risks to training effectiveness. While it may be true that learning something new can be accomplished pretty quickly, changing one’s natural or acquired habits and behaviours in order to apply the new knowledge to the work environment is not so simple. It requires conscious effort and often necessitates a lot of time and energy. Sending someone to a five-day training workshop and expecting them to be a changed person once they return will likely lead to disappointment, both for the individual and for those around them who have such expectations. 


In a world increasingly populated with titles and topics such as “rapid growth” and “accelerated development of competencies”, I would remind readers that developing and mastering something takes time. Rushing it is like trying to sponge away a coffee stain you just made on your shirt. It is at best a temporary solution that often does only a half-decent job.


3. Too soon for the lesson

Would knowing which parts of the information transmitted back when you were in school would eventually be useful to you, and how, have helped you be more efficient or focussed when learning it?

If you answered yes to this question, you probably already understand the third common obstacle to training effectiveness: that of it being too soon for the lesson.


As a facilitator, I have often seen people being sent for training before having acquired sufficient exposure to their role to be able to understand its realities and thus truly incorporate the learning from a workshop. Prior experiences with a situation often create the framework for understanding the relevance of information and behaviours taught during workshops. They allow individuals to be able to recognize those key moments of “opportunity” on the job when applying the new knowledge and behaviours will help generate better outcomes. The old saying that without understanding, knowledge is useless, and without knowledge, experience is blind, can apply to workshops. That is why learning and development programs focussing on social learning and insight derived from prior experiences are becoming more and more popular. 


4. “The workshop will fix everything” mindset

This last obstacle can best be represented by the following conversation between a middle manager and his immediate superior: 


Middle manager:

“Mr. X seems to be having an issue with motivating and engaging his team lately. A lot of them have come to me to talk about it but I don’t really know what to tell them. I don’t want to undermine Mr. X’s authority. I’m kind of getting worried that some of them might quit if he doesn’t get his act together.”


Immediate superior:

“Hmmm, yeah, that’s a problem. Why don’t you call HR? They usually have good solutions for this sort of stuff. Maybe they can recommend a workshop or two for him to follow. Those really helped me when I was a new manager. I’m sure that will help fix it.”


Although this is slightly caricaturized, variations on the above conversation are quite common. When I hear similar statements, I tend to become more sensitive to the presence (or lack thereof) of two essential leadership competencies amongst the mid-to-senior management levels within the organization: 1) developing others, and 2) courage to act.


Without being solely responsible for this reality, mid-to-senior managers within organizations sometimes either lack the courage or experience to give their direct reports constructive and meaningful feedback, or do not manifest the necessary dedication to invest time in coaching and developing them. Instead, they just send them for training or to their human resources departments for the answers.


Thankfully, the belief that giving feedback and developing people is HR’s job is becoming less and less common. Thanks to research on creating a “learning culture”, the notion that developing people is everyone’s job has been gaining momentum in organizations. People now understand that development initiatives have a much stronger chance of generating positive results when knowledge and mastery of the content are valued and supported within the organization.


So when DO workshops work?

If workshops are going to continue to be a worthwhile investment in developing talent, continuous attention must be paid to the three following categories: 

  1. Contemporary learning strategies and human adaptation principles;
  2. Recognition of workshops as part of a broader, more holistic approach to learning and development;
  3. Understanding and management of the variables which determine whether transfer of learning occurs in the workplace.


Much interest has been paid in recent years to the creation of a learning culture within organizations, one which supports the application as well as the transmission of knowledge. This phenomenon occurs when some very tangible conditions and behaviours are put in place by those who take part in talent development—a category which hopefully should include, essentially, all of us. 



Cheddi Suddith has been an organizational psychology consultant at SPB Organizational Psychology since 2000 and is currently a senior consultant with SPB's Toronto based operations. His areas of expertise involve Talent Identification and Leadership Development Strategies. Mr. Suddith is also very experienced in facilitating trainings, workshops, and seminars on a variety of topics involving people at work.



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