In a previous article, I made a case for there being just two attributes that drive the success of any organization — innovation and customer service. Then, in that article, I described how to improve customer service by providing a form of training that’s usually reserved for police and corrections officers.

In a future article, I will discuss how to increase innovation within an organization — which will also involve employee training.

For both improving customer service and increasing innovation, training is critically important, but the two points I want to make in this article are that:

  1. Providing training on topics requiring group buy-in, like innovation and customer service, can only take you so far if another important organizational attribute isn’t already in place.
  2. There is a training topic that’s far more important than either customer service or innovation because it produces the organizational attribute specified in point #1.

Relative to the value of training, let me tell you a story I heard at a Peter Lowe SUCCESS event back in 1997. Zig Ziglar, an author of over 30 books on sales, was one of the many speakers (along with Larry King and General Schwarzkopf) and he told a story of trying to convince the president of a large corporation that he needed to provide more training to his employees. The president was resistant to Zig’s advice because “we spend all this time and money on training and then people leave.”

Zig’s response was this now famous quote:

“The only thing worse than training an employee and having them leave is to not train them and have them stay.”

Zig is known for literally hundreds of quotes (e.g., “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude”) but this one on the value of training is one of my favorites.

Although in Zig’s story, I think the president’s opinion about training is probably extreme, we all know the training budget is often the first to get cut when there is an organizational downturn.

Why Do Training Budgets Get Cut During A Downturn

Why is that? Why are training budgets cut when you’d think the logical response would be just the opposite (things aren’t going as they should –> something should be improved –> training is the best way make things better).

But, despite this obvious logic, when budgets are tight, the training expense line is almost always cut.

Again, why is that?

I would suggest there are three reasons: 1) past training programs weren’t very good; 2) the training on which funds are being spent doesn’t address what contributed to the downturn; and 3) internal issues have prevented prior training from changing behavior.

The first two are training-selection problems. Obviously, for training to deliver value it must be good and targeted to the needs of the organization. I’ll leave these challenges to a future article.

It’s the third reason I want to tackle here — training budgets are often cut because internal issues have prevented prior training from changing behavior.

To understand this reason, you need to realize that training is just one element of the backbone of all organizations — human resources.

In fact, human costs can account for as much as 70% of all organizational costs. Then, whatever the “accounting” cost of people, the “real” cost is always higher due to the impact of substandard employee productivity.

Productivity is the ratio of outputs to the inputs required to produce an organization’s outputs and, except in heavily automated industries, human capital is always the primary input. Economists know productivity is one of the primary determinants of growth — both within individual organizations and within the economy as a whole — which is why this economic measure is so carefully tracked.

Since human capital is the largest source of expense in most organizations, employee productivity is the primary driver of overall productivity and the primary measure of organizational performance.

According to the National Business Research Institute (https://www.nbrii.com/blog/infographic-5-key-factors-affect-employees-productivity), there are five key factors that affect employee productivity.

  1. Nature of relationship with supervisor
  2. Level of morale and motivation
  3. Level of job enjoyment
  4. Health and well-being (with 84% of the impact of this factor caused by reduced performance while at work rather than absences)
  5. Effectiveness of technology use

CommLab India (https://blog.commlabindia.com/elearning-design/negative-performance-factors) identified 16 factors — which are a bit more specific but still fall into these same five categories:

  1. Poor leadership, poorly-conducted performance reviews, lack of clarity about roles and accountability, perceived discrimination, and poor employee selection (nature of relationship with supervisor)
  2. Clash of values, gossip, ego issues, bullying, harassment, and lack of transparency (level of morale and motivation)
  3. Stress, workload, and inadequate resources (level of job enjoyment)
  4. Depleting health (health and well-being)
  5. Outdated technology (effectiveness of technology use)

The One Factor Driving Employee Productivity

During my 40+-year career as a manager, if I eliminate the factors over which I had little control (disease, company’s investment in technology, overall workload), I always thought the level of employee productivity came down to just one factor:

quality of interpersonal relationships.

For me, all of the other factors affecting behavior listed above are directly related to this one overarching factor.

Earlier I said the reason training budgets are cut during an organizational downturn is that prior training did little to change behavior due to the presence of internal issues.

In my experience, these internal issues almost always result from challenges with interpersonal relationships. In other words, poor interpersonal relations is the primary cause of poor employee productivity and is one of the primary reasons why training isn’t as impactful as it should be.

So, let me summarize where we’ve gotten so far:

  • Productivity is one of the primary determinants of organizational growth
  • In most organizations, employee productivity is the primary driver of overall productivity
  • Quality of interpersonal relations is the principle factor affecting employee productivity
  • Issues with interpersonal relations often prevent employee training from changing behavior

If you agree with this logic, then you understand the critical importance of interpersonal relations within almost every organization. If relations are good, performance goes up and, if relations are bad, performance goes down. And, if you throw training at a performance problem, issues with interpersonal relations can get in the way of the training having any impact.

Therefore, if you are going to devote resources to training, training employees on how to improve their interpersonal relations is an essential place to start.

What Does Interpersonal Relations Training Look Like

So, what would such training look like? Well, according to Wikipedia’s article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpersonal_relationship) on “interpersonal relationships,” the following skills drive the quality of interpersonal relations:

  • Verbal communication – What we say and how we say it
  • Nonverbal communication – What we communicate without words (e.g., body language)
  • Listening skills – How we interpret both the verbal and non-verbal messages sent by othersNegotiation – Working with others to find a mutually agreeable outcome
  • Problem-solving – Working with others to identify, define and solve problemsDecision making – Exploring and analyzing options to make sound decisions
  • Assertiveness – Communicating our values, ideas, beliefs, opinions, needs and wants freely

So, a good interpersonal relations training program would provide training in these seven skills.

Well, as you may know, I’ve been a business guy for my entire career and have worked in Fortune 500 companies and venture capital startups — and, over a 40-year time span, the training I’ve received covered only small bits and pieces of these skills.

Think about the training you have received and consider which, if any, of these skills were taught. I’m guessing your answer is “not many.”

Why is that?

Consider the common term we use for deficiencies in each of these skills. In other words, what is the label we use for poor communication, inadequate listening, bad negotiations, lousy problem solving and decision making, and non-assertiveness?

Don’t we call this “conflict?”

The Other Term For Interpersonal Relations Training

I believe so and, if that’s the case, then interpersonal relations training should really be called “conflict management” training. For example, Vistelar (www.vistelar.com) offers a conflict management training program that includes such topics as:

  • How to show respect (verbal communication)
  • Importance of not speaking reactively (verbal communication)
  • The “universal greeting” (verbal communication)
  • How not to set off the conflict triggers of others (verbal and non-verbal communication)
  • How to display a showtime mindset (non-verbal communication)
  • How to use proxemics in interpersonal interactions (non-verbal communication)
  • How to practice empathy (listening skills)
  • Beyond active listening (listening skills)
  • The “persuasion sequence” (negotiation)
  • How to maintain emotional equilibrium (problem-solving and decision making)
  • How to respond rather than react (problem-solving and decision making)
  • How to have confidence in conflict (assertiveness)

This conflict management training program sounds a lot like interpersonal relations training.

But, when was the last time you received such training? I’m guessing never.

“We train people to be expert in managing technology, numbers, finance, and the law. But this most fundamental characteristic of human interaction – conflict – is something we are somehow just supposed to figure out as we go along. But we don’t. And not knowing how to handle it, we prefer to ignore it and hope it goes away. The bad news is that it won’t go away; unresolved conflict festers and grows.”

Margaret Heffernan — Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes (1955 – present)

Google’s Project To Improve Employee Productivity

In 2012, Google identified the critical need to focus on how to improve employee productivity and kicked off their now famous Aristotle Project, a tribute to Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” For almost three years, Google researched the role of interpersonal relations (conflict) in team effectiveness.

Here is a brief overview of the research they conducted:

  • Reviewed a half-century of academic studies looking at how teams worked
  • Identified 180 teams to study, which included a mix of high- and low-performing teams
  • Tested how team composition/dynamics impacted team effectiveness
  • Conducted hundreds of double-blind interviews with team leaders
  • Analyzed 250 data points from Google’s annual employee survey, which asks if you agree or disagree with such statements as:
    • I feel safe expressing divergent opinions to the team
    • I am good at navigating roadblocks and barriers.
    • I see myself as someone who is a reliable worker
    • I am not interested in other people’s problems

They also collected demographic variables like team tenure and geographical location.

Google then ran statistical models on hundreds of variables (which they are quite good at, by the way) to try to understand which of the many inputs collected actually impacted team effectiveness.

After two years of work, the Google researchers concluded that all the team factors they thought would make a difference did not seem to matter at all. For example, the company’s top executives long believed that building the best teams meant combining the best people. However, when they crunched the data, there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The “who” part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.

In fact, they could not find any correlation between team effectiveness and other factors they thought would make a difference, such as:

  • Colocation of teammates (sitting together in the same office)
  • Consensus-driven decision making
  • Extroversion of team members
  • Individual performance of team members
  • Workload size
  • Seniority
  • Size of team
  • Tenure of team

For a long time, Google’s researchers were stuck. Charles Duhigg, in his book Smarter, Faster, Better, quotes a person who worked on this project:

“We knew it was important for people to feel like they can speak up if something’s wrong. But those are also the behaviors that can set people at odds. We didn’t know why some groups could clash and still perform, while others would hit a period of conflict and everything would fall apart.”

But, as you might expect with Google, they didn’t give up — they kept analyzing their data and, ultimately, identified just one team attribute that made all the difference in team effectiveness. Teams with it performed exceptionally, and teams without it struggled.

The One Attribute That Drove Team Performance

They called this one attribute “psychological safety” — an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk. In other words, the one attribute that drove performance was a belief that a person’s team is safe for risk-taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.

In teams with high psychological safety, teammates felt safe to take risks around their team members and confident no one on the team would embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

As further support for Google’s conclusion, Amy Edmondson,  the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, came to this same conclusion in a research study published in 1999 (Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams, Administrative Science Quarterly, 44 (1999): 350-383).

Once this attribute was identified, the next challenge was to create an employee training program that would result in improved psychological safety within Google’s teams. Again, this is from Duhigg’s book:

“It was clear to us which norm was most important — psychological safety. But, it wasn’t clear how to teach this inside Google. We needed clear guidelines for creating psychological safety without losing the capacity for dissent and debate that’s so critical to how Google functions.”

Likewise, although the conclusion of Dr. Edmondson’s study was that psychological safety was critical to team performance, she did not specify how to create such a team culture — but she did identify a need to figure it out. This is from her 1999 paper.

[There is clear empirical support] “for the role of psychological safety in promoting performance in these work teams; however, [my research] also suggests that psychological safety and ways to promote it will be increasingly relevant for future research on work teams.”

Training To Create Psychological Safety

Again, Google kept at it — and over the next year they put together a training program on how to create psychological safety. While the complete details of this training program haven’t been published, if you review the snippets that have been made available, it sounds like the training was about how to improve in these seven skills:

  • Verbal communication – What we say and how we say it
  • Nonverbal communication – What we communicate without words (e.g., body language)
  • Listening skills – How we interpret both the verbal and non-verbal messages sent by others
  • Negotiation – Working with others to find a mutually agreeable outcome
  • Problem-solving – Working with others to identify, define and solve problems
  • Decision making – Exploring and analyzing options to make sound decisions
  • Assertiveness – Communicating our values, ideas, beliefs, opinions, needs and wants freely

In other words, Google created an “interpersonal relations” or “conflict management” training program.

Once training was provided, it took a while for the impact to be seen — but then here is what they found:

“You can take a team of average performers, and if you teach them to
interact the right way, they’ll do things no superstars could ever accomplish.”

Lazlo Bock (1972 – present), head of the People Operations department at Google, as quoted in Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg

Summary

So with what we learned from Google and Amy Edmondson, let me modify my logic tree on this topic:

  • Productivity is one of the primary determinants of growth
  • In most organizations, employee productivity is the primary driver of overall productivity
  • Quality of interpersonal relations (psychological safety) is the principle factor affecting employee productivity
  • Issues with interpersonal relations often prevent employee training from changing behavior
  • To improve interpersonal relations (psychological safety), you must provide training to employees focused on improving interpersonal relations skills. This training is also known as “conflict management training.”

In other words, conflict management training is the key to organizational productivity.

At the beginning of this article, I indicated I wanted to make two points:

    1. Providing training on topics requiring group buy-in, like innovation and customer service, can only take you so far if another important organizational attribute isn’t already in place.
    2. There is a training topic that’s far more important than either customer service or innovation because it produces the organizational attribute specified in point #1.

Obviously, that “training topic” is conflict management and, if you trust Google and Dr. Edmondson, training on this topic should be the priority for almost every organization given that the goal of every organization should be to increase productivity.

My first point might be a little less obvious, so let me explain.

In my experience, most training requires a “team” buy-in for it to have any impact. For example, the principles taught in a training program on customer service or innovation (the two attributes that drive the success of any organization) must be broadly adopted for the training program to deliver positive results.

If the interpersonal relations within an organization are problematic, then it’s very unlikely that any training requiring team buy-in is going to have much effect. Here is why — poorly-managed conflict is going to get in the way of its implementation.

This isn’t an issue for individual skills training (e.g., sales skills, computer skills, MS Excel) but it’s definitely a roadblock for any training where a group of people must work together to implement what is taught.

Therefore, just providing training on a topic (often described as “checking the box”) can only take you so far. Without prefacing a training program requiring buy-in with conflict management training, it’s unlikely to have the desired impact.

Conflict management training should be the foundation of any effort to improve employee productivity.