Do workplace motivational courses/speakers make a difference?
August 1, 2005 8:16 PM   Subscribe

Do workplace motivational courses/speakers make a difference?

Several years ago, my employer put an entire company (1000s of people) through a three-day course designed to “to accelerate individual and organizational potential by changing habits, attitudes, beliefs and expectations that inhibit and often block high-performance people.”

I’ve tried contacting people who were co-workers at the time to find out what they think. Of those I’ve been able to locate a) two can’t remember the course, and don’t think it had an impact b) one loathed it, and said it didn’t have an impact c) one liked it, and still tries to incorporate some of the practices.

It’s not a very big sample, so I thought I’d Ask Mefi. Have you ever been through one of these courses via work and, if so, did it make a difference? (and I’m talking a year or two later, not a few days later). If so, what was the impact on you? On the company? What was the course like? And if you know of any studies on the topic, please let me know! (my searches aren’t turning up much).

P.S. I'm hoping for info on work-related courses, not programs people have gone through on their own initiative.
posted by Badmichelle to Work & Money (24 answers total)
My personal feeling, and that of many of my co-workers, is that these things are a big waste of time and are generally full of non-helpful fluff. Thankfully, my company's current management seems to feel the same way and spends the budget on things like They Might Be Giants concerts and lunchtime visits from Bruce Campbell instead (although I personally was unable to attend either of these events).
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:39 PM on August 1, 2005

In my ten-year career with my current very large and very corporate employer, we've been subjected to a great many inane courses and seminars -- probably on the order of 30 of them. Absolutely none of them has had a significant effect on me personally or the people I work with.
posted by majick at 9:24 PM on August 1, 2005

No effect whatsoever, other than resentment that these people get paid many, many times my annual salary to spout these mindless motivational platitudes, and anger that the organisations that employed me were run by people who actually believed that such speakers would make a difference.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:31 PM on August 1, 2005

I would also say that they don't work, generally speaking.

Also, avoid Landmark Forum and others like it. (Including Scientology, obviously.) They mainly exist to take your money, do potentially dangerous ego breakdowns on your psyche and get you to recruit new members from your peers.

If your company ever tries to foist Landmark Forum on you and your cow-orkers, run like hell and/or do whatever you can about it. People shouldn't have to participate in dubious crap like that simply to keep their jobs.
posted by loquacious at 9:39 PM on August 1, 2005

it makes an effect insofar as a totalitarian system advances democracy
posted by yonation at 9:39 PM on August 1, 2005

Read this chapter from Peopleware, one of my favourite books. Deals with those annoying motivational plaques and posters.
posted by madman at 10:09 PM on August 1, 2005

Badmichelle, take a look at MeFi and MeTa carefully. It's fully of snark, one-upping, and zingers. No offense to this place, cuz I love it, but motivational speeches aren't targeted toward generally cranky, intelligent people. They're intended for "lifers" who just need a pick me up to resume their life as a chipper workaholic.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 10:17 PM on August 1, 2005

Ok, I have to contradict everyone here (albeit with a few caveats).

When I was in college, I took a weeklong negotiation course, and it changed my life. We negotiate every day of our lives--from the first time a baby cries in order to persuade her mom to feed her--but school does not teach us how to do it, except through trial and error. Some people learn that crying works, and they keep doing it. Other people learn that yelling works, and they keep doing that. Still other people have a more nuanced approach but cannot adopt their methods to changing circumstances.

For me, it was a huge revelation that there was a language for studying, discussing, and improving negotiation skills. I fell in love with the subject matter and the way that it was taught, and it's significantly improved the way that I interact with everyone, from my father to my boss to my waitress. So for the past eight years (with some breaks), I've been teaching businesspeople how to negotiate and communicate more effectively. I am one of those annoying trainers whom your workplace foists upon you!

But I feel like I have a pretty good handle on how people react to my programs. Many people start out seeming indifferent or frustrated. Most people end up seeming intruiged and involved. People stay late to ask questions, to debate issues, and to learn more. People tell me that they learned more than they ever thought possible, and they rave about the training in (anonymous) evaluations.

Of course not everyone enjoys the experience. And of course I'm biased. But I entered this field because I loved it from the other side of the table, and I suspect others feel similarly.

As for whether it's had a long-term effect on me...I learn best through teaching, so I really began to understand this stuff when I became an instructor. There's only so much you can absorb from one session, even if it does last a week. However, every little bit you learn and work to incorporate in your life can make a difference, and the more you think about these issues, the more skillful you can become.

So what inspired the question, Badmichelle? I think you can't really generalize about all workplace courses or all employee experiences. Maybe we could help you more if we knew what you were hoping to learn.

Basically, I would ask everyone to remember that all workplace seminars are not created equal. Some are a total waste of time and money. Others (including mine, of course) are supported by extensive research and are taught by skilled trainers. Keep an open mind! If you sit there with your arms crossed just to spite the stupid boss who made you attend the training, you're hurting your chance to glean anything of value from the experience. And if you try to participate and it still truly sucks, tell your boss and maybe even the trainer that--and hopefully, they'll either improve the program or drop it entirely.
posted by equipoise at 11:32 PM on August 1, 2005

Given the experience I would certainly differentiate between one of those smarmy 'motivational' courses and a training program dedicated to negotiation/communication skills like you've described, equipose.

I think most MeFites would differentiate as well.

The latter actually sounds interesting and incredibly useful. The former sounds like a good excuse to scoop out my brain one nibble at a time with a staple remover.

That being said, I'm assuming the topic at hand is those fluffy, smarmy types of "uplifting" motivational courses, not programs that actually teach useful communication skills.
posted by loquacious at 1:19 AM on August 2, 2005

Just to pick on SiezeTheDay's last sentence : Yes, that's largely true. The problem is that the effect is usually short-term for most people - I've seen too many people come back from these things all fired up and enthusiastic, only to come down a few days later and fall into a light depression and anger when they realise they've been had.

Then again, my workplace is a maybe-unusual grouping of generally intelligent and highly-skilled blue-collar workers (although my employer, when they're not foisting motivational courses on us, tries to break this down under the twin guises of "process" and "teamwork"). Useful courses - like negotiation skills, etc - never make it to us, where they'd be a valuable part of our customer-face contact. Instead, they're reserved for office staff with purely internal "customers".
posted by Pinback at 3:05 AM on August 2, 2005

I worked for an individual who loved those things. He'd go off for three days or so and come back all fired up about "the process," or "tiger teams," or "focus groups," or whatever he'd been fed. We enjoyed his absences, but dreaded his returns. These enthusiasms lasted a week or two, then subsided.

The only time I can recall the company bestowing the benefits of such a program on the employees at large, it was only a one-day affair, based on the philosophy of the asshole Malcolm Baldridge. He really rubbed me the wrong way with this line: "Money is not a motivator." Which employers everywhere have extended to: "but poverty is."

Based on my limited experience, I'd say those motivational programs are not just a waste of resources, but counterproductive.

posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:10 AM on August 2, 2005

To answer equipoise's question -- I asked this because I've been trying to write something about change, and I started remembering how organizations I have worked for have handled it. And when I started thinking about programs one particular company put us through, I was surprised at how annoyed and resentful I was. I hated the courses at the time, and now, years later, when I think about them, I still feel annoyed.

I was going through a pretty bad patch in my life at the time we took one of the courses, and I was wondering if my experience was coloured by that, or if other people reacted the same way I did. Most people I was friends with at work at the time didn't like the courses either, but I wondered whether that was because I tend to hang out with, as SeizeTheDay put it "generally cranky, intelligent people."

Thanks for helping to answer the question!

Like Loquacious, I think a course on negotiation skills might be interesting (and a skill I could definitely stand to acquire). But I've done some more googling since I posted the question. I think the courses I took were actually large group awareness training, and I was right to be wary.
posted by Badmichelle at 4:34 AM on August 2, 2005

Slip a few orders to this guy next time your boss makes you order more of those stupid motivational posters.
posted by flabdablet at 6:22 AM on August 2, 2005

While there are some laudable exceptions, motivational and soft skills trainings are usually a symptom of HR hypertrophy. Nothing better demonstrates the power of the HR department to the rest of the company than throwing away hundreds of thousands of dollars of line and management productivity and direct production costs on a big, fat, useless seminar.

I don't blame HR, though. Senior management usually bears the ultimate responsibility for the composition and excessive power of HR, first for permitting an HR department to be a reserve of over-promoted secretaries and otherwise-unemployable early-childhood-education majors who can't understand the rest of the business and naturally become fierce defenders of their turf, and second for fostering / indulging one of two inimical HR cultures of risk management: sincere but paranoid, or cynical and overreaching.
posted by MattD at 7:33 AM on August 2, 2005

We had one on "generational differences in the workplace" that people really got into. There were shouting matches, laughter, tears, you name it.

In general, the only ones I can even remember are workshops that actually counted on some type of interaction. We have been "talked at" by a couple of motivational types, but most of us either space out or discreetly work on something else. It seems to help if you feed each person's ego a bit (let them learn about themselves) and foster connections (let coworkers get to know each other).
posted by whatnot at 8:18 AM on August 2, 2005

When my employers have forced me to attend motivational speakers, I've not learned anything. However, on the rare occasions I've found a seminar that I needed, and gone to it, about 75% of the time it turned out to be useful.

So, top-down forced institutionalized one-size-fits-all change doesn't work for everyone (this shouldn't be a shocking statement). However, letting individual employees seek out training for skills they need, whether soft or hard skills, often does.
posted by QIbHom at 8:27 AM on August 2, 2005

Being required to attend a inspirational conference was once the straw that broke the camel's back in inspiring me to quit a job, so it made a difference.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 8:46 AM on August 2, 2005

MattD, your comment just made my morning. I recently quit a job where the HR department was far too "involved" with everyone's affairs and took all of its power from an abrasive, arrogant (but extremely intelligent) CFO. The CFO recently left and I won't be able to see the results of the power shift, but god damn, did I hate that HR department.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 9:33 AM on August 2, 2005

I also enjoyed MattD's contribution. When Personnel became Human Resources, we all lost something.

posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:00 AM on August 2, 2005

Okay, okay. Settle down. Having been part of an HR department for a handful of major corporations at pretty high levels, I can tell you that I spent an awful lot of time and energy trying to PROTECT employees from the whims and tantrums of upper management. I fought against so many of those 1-3 day "motivational courses" that I developed a reputation for being very outspoken against "gratuitous fun" (silly things that waste peoples' time). However, serious, productive fun was always encouraged.

Just like EVERY department in EVERY company, HR has its share of good and bad staff members. (So does IT. So does Marketing. So does Accounting.) Unfortunately, when corporate leadership becomes too meddlesome, HR bears a large part of the blame. Is HR ever to blame? Sure. I've reported to VP's of HR who would give Stalin a run for his money.

Anyway, back to development and organizational change. The best types of development courses are integrated into other changes in corporate systems, policies and culture. They are not discrete events. The ones that produce lasting change for the most attendees give employees the opportunity to bring real world problems into the classroom, examine them in a "safe" environment, experiment with different solutions, LEAVE, try out those solutions, return to the classroom, reflect on lessons learned, etc. Sometimes they return to their "learning group" over and over. The corporation's policies and systems allow them to make these changes and don't contradict what they are learning.

So, why don't more of these "holistic" training programs get implemented? Why do motivational seminars sneak through?

Cost. Effort. Management's love of corporate fads. Lack of sophistication of instructional designers and instructors (you need ones who actually KNOW the business and who can facilitate instead of teach from a script). Etc. Etc.

Sigh. I know I'm on my high horse about this. But I loved designing very easy to implement, real life applicable training systems in companies. I felt very passionate about it and, when I was able to design/implement, the programs created real change (which is still modeled years later). However, it was often difficult to get companies to spend the time and money and emotional energy (change involves conflict) needed to create REAL change. Often they wanted to tell shareholders, "Hey, we held 6 sessions last year of two days each!" And that was it.

posted by jeanmari at 10:13 AM on August 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the clarification, loquacious and Badmichelle. I've only been exposed to skills training in the past (e.g. negotiation or sales skills)...I didn't really realize that there was a separate category of "go team!" seminars.

Badmichelle's interesting group awareness training link, though, seems to smoosh a wide variety of programs together. It claims to cover both programs "aimed at helping participants begin to discover what is hindering them from achieving their full potential and living more satisfied lives" and programs aimed at "improving management skills, conflict resolution, general institutional strengthening, and dealing with the eternal problem of employees who drink too much or use too many drugs."

So according to that description, negotiation skills (which are conflict resolution skills) fit into the same category as those noxious motivational topics. Surely there's a huge difference between Landmark Forum and a alcohol detox program? Surely there's a huge difference between, say, teaching your employees to avoid sexually harassing each other and teaching your employees how to hum "Stay on the Sunny Side" at all times? Surely I sound defensive?

Sounds like the folks on this thread have a more nuanced, insightful analysis of workplace seminars. I definitely agree with QIbHom that you are going to get more out of a workshop that you choose to take than one that you are forced to attend. (Although difficult employees are unlikely to sign up for certain courses that they may really need, like how to stop shooting up heroin at work or slapping your secretary's butt or pissing off your boss.)

On preview: go jeanmarie!
posted by equipoise at 10:23 AM on August 2, 2005

I put motivational seminars in the same bucket with "enforced fun" activities like department picnics and the like
posted by tommasz at 12:03 PM on August 2, 2005

(sorry got cut off mid-sentence)

Perhaps it's because I'm in engineering, but the motivators for people like me are interesting work for decent wages. It's not a secret and management is fully aware. And when those things are absent, the solution should be the responsibility of the organization to provide them, not the workers to somehow learn to live without them.
posted by tommasz at 12:10 PM on August 2, 2005

Just checking in to say, go tommasz! Enforced fun is now my new favorite phrase. I hated participating in enforced fun and hated being required to organize it when I was in HR. The worst waste of money ever with the added benefit of being the root of resentments for years to come.

Some upper management is aware of "interesting work for decent wages" but ,seriously? Management has a BIG ol' blind spot when it comes to the question of whether or not THEY offer interesting work for decent wages. It never fails to amaze me that upper management--having landed their own positions through connections, luck, very occasionally talent, or a combination of the three--remember their "coming up through the ranks" years as being full of incredibly interesting projects. When the company was sixty people crammed in a warehouse. And now that it is 16,000 people, they can't understand why the employees coming up through the ranks don't find the work interesting with no effort exerted on the part of management. However, if THEY worked a day as a junior junior junior technical engineering analyst administrator, they would realize that the "up and coming jobs" can be a pretty frustrating and blah. Because they have squeezed all of the creativity, decision-making latitude, and excitement out of them in the headlong pursuit of a short-term bump in the numbers so the market doesn't punish the stock this quarter. Even when the long term strategy is where the real rewards are. And for this we thank Frederick Taylor, Michael Hammer and James Champy.

So that enforced fun event? A way for upper management to wander the crowd, shake hands, and say to themselves, "Look at all of my happy employees! I am the best executive ever."

Gah. Sorry. I'm pretty crabby today. Wow. I think I've been working with upper management for too long. I need a glass of wine.
posted by jeanmari at 6:09 PM on August 2, 2005

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