Prevention trumps cure, they say. How does that work in the L&D context? In this trilogy of articles, I examine various facets of this issue.
In this (1st) article, I examine why exactly preventive interventions score over curative ones. I take up 3 examples of curative interventions from my own L&D work, list the problems they faced, and deduce how prevention would have avoided these problems.
Leaders in soup
The first example: an intervention carried out in ‘curative’ mode (post-problem) with a group a team leaders. The norm amongst them was to rule with iron fists, transmit downwards any pressure received from bosses and fixate solely on end-results. Not surprisingly, of the fresh recruits who joined, a staggering 55% quit within the first 6 months. My objective was to infuse their repertoire of management methods with situational leadership principles and a healthy concern for the well being and development of the team members.
Because this intervention was curative, not preventive, it faced 3 problems.
1. There was resistance to new learning. The participants’ experiences of working in a certain fashion had hardened their attitudes. “This is not how we work here” was a constant refrain. Some felt that the flexibility inherent in situational leadership would be seen as a sign of weakness/shiftiness. Other feared loss of control, whenever we talked about delegation. To some, the idea that a manager is responsible for team members’ development felt alien (“Isn’t that HR’s job?”).
2. The intervention came too late. Learners had already caused much damage before they came to the intervention. Each of them had presumably experimented with several ‘flavor of the month’ management syles over the years, frustrated their team members and caused people to leave the organisation.
3. Shame barred the way to change. Participant felt that changing their leadership style midway tantamounted to admitting that they had been wrong all along. That shame prevented them from going back to their teams and promising change. Some wished they could start with a fresh slate, unencumbered by guilt.
Notice how all 3 problems arose because the situation was allowed to get bad before someone thought of intervening.
A Team in Conflict
The second example is from my work with an R&D team, which had been formed a year before I met them. During this past year, the 8 team members had constantly quarrelled about priorities and approaches and let their professional differences become personal grudges. The workshop I was conducting with them aimed at getting them to start cooperating again. The same 3 challenges appeared here too.
1. Resistance to the idea of a rapproachment, given the history of bitterness in the team (“Let him apologise first”)
2. The damage of lost opportunity and stalled projects so far
3. Individual shame about admitting an error, which prompted some to dig in their heels
Although we did manage to make some headway by the end of the workshop, I couldn’t help wonder: a preventive intervention 1 year ago would have helped so much, prevented so much damage.
An organisation at crossroads
A third example is from a small organisation, which grew quickly because it grabbed whatever opportunities came its way, as cash-strapped startups feel compelled to do. A few years later, it found itself in a funny spot. It was unable to define itself clearly because of its diverse offerings, unable to define priorities because of the discordant business units. So we had to struggle through multiple sessions of ‘discovering purpose’ and identifying some unifying theme amoungst business units. Our now familiar trinity of problems appeared again:
Resistance: To narrowing focus, because each BU feared loss of importance in the new setup
Damage: Wasted effort put into businesses they would now close down
Shame: About pivoting in a new direction now (“What will we tell our partners and customers? Even our families will wonder why we didn’t realise this sooner”)
It’s easy to see that agreeing on a new organisation’s founding principles early on would have prevented the above problems.
The prevention alternative
Now imagine what would happen if the same people attended a similar intervention, BEFORE assuming charge of their teams.
1. Eagerness to learn would replace resistance. People always welcome an opportunity to ready themselves for the ‘next level’.
2. So much damage would be avoided. Since forewarned is forearmed, managers would have dealt with issues with more awareness and care, reducing damage caused by knee-jerk reactions.
3. There would be no question of shame associated with a course-correction later on.
So that’s it, then. The 3 advantages of preventively tackling a future problem are: Less resistance. Less damage. Less shame about change.
The thought of preventive interventions raises more questions: How early on should one do it? Which interventions can be done preventively and which ones not? How exactly is a preventive intervention structured? Answers to these in the next 2 parts of this trilogy.
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