An interesting exchange I had on Twitter recently was about a suggestion that I made that “leadership skills” training might be a waste of time. Some thought went into making such a sweeping statement; I am currently taking the last of a series of courses on leadership as a part of my PhD program. During these courses, I’ve engaged with research literature on a wide range of leadership skills, personality inventories, and models. It’s clear from all of these readings that leadership skills are important and do make a difference in schools.
The bigger question for me is not whether leadership skills are important, but whether they can be taught. As a student of instructional design, I look at everything through the lens of training. If something can be taught (inexpensively), and there is evidence that it will result in positive outcomes for our students, then we should consider teaching it. If something can’t be taught its value doesn’t go much further than as a frame for interview questions, or as a component of a teacher’s evaluation. If there’s no apparent way to increase it, then you 1. hire well, 2. fire well, and 3. focus on other things that are teachable.
An example of a leadership skill that is universally valued is proactivity. Proactivity refers to the ability to be “self-starting, change oriented, and future focused” (Tornau & Frese, 2013, p. 46) and there is considerable evidence that employee proactivity is linked to positive outcomes (Strauss & Parker, 2018). Proactive involvement and/or personality has been linked to increases in job satisfaction, commitment, social networking, and performance (Thomas, Whitman, & Viswesvaran, 2010). Proactive individuals are more likely to be able to adapt in positive ways and perform desirable behaviors at work (Randolph & Dahling, 2013) and the negative effects of job dissatisfaction are weaker for proactive individuals (Wijaya, 2019).
If the positive impacts of proactivity are clear and consistent throughout the literature, what’s the problem? Again, the problem is not that the leadership skill of proactivity doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t matter, but that there is little evidence that it can be stimulated or enhanced through training.
In a recent study, Strauss and Parker (2018) hypothesized that proactive behavior could be stimulated through training and they devised two different interventions to try to prove it. The first was a problem-focused intervention that focused on reducing discrepancies between the current situation and the ideal present. Participants were asked to brainstorm problems at work that posed threats to their resources, and to set positive, specific, and achievable goals to make changes in order to address these problems. Participants then created implementation plans and received additional assertiveness training and time management training to help reduce barriers to implementation and increase proactive behavior. In the final workshop for this intervention, employees participated in a check-in meeting on the status of their implementation plan.
I can imagine having to undergo this sort of leadership skills training at a school. The opportunity cost could be high because it would mean allocating time and resources towards trying to increase a potentially unteachable personality trait rather than focusing instead on, say, some of the elements of the Great Teaching Toolkit (Coe et al., 2020) that are a bit more straightforward and would have an immediate impact on teaching and learning.
So what did Strauss and Parker find? The results of the first experiment indicated small effects on proactivity for individuals who reported high role overload (“lack of adequate resources required to comply with role expectations or demands” p. 1255), but significant effects for the overall sample were not found. This suggests that proactivity training might be beneficial to individuals that sense major threats to their resources – the teachers who claim they are “always busy” – but not to everyone else.
The results of the second training deployed by Strauss and Parker (2018) – a “vision-focused intervention” – were about the same. During the training, participants were encouraged “to visualize their future work self and set goals to move towards the future they envision” (p. 1259). The results of the study demonstrated no significant effects for the overall sample (again, disappointing…) but it did generate small increases in the proactivity of individuals with a high future orientation, suggesting that proactivity training can be particularly beneficial to individuals who “prefer to invest in future rather than in current resources” (p. 1270).
These results are consistent with those of the first experiment; Proactivity training might have a small impact on performance, but these positive effects are limited only to a small number of individuals who, by nature of their personality, are particularly well-positioned to get the most out of the experience, and it’s probably a waste of time for everyone else.
Zach Groshell @mrzachg
Coe, R., Rauch, C. J., Kime, S., & Singleton, D. (2020). Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review.
Randolph, K. L., & Dahling, J. J. (2013). Interactive effects of proactive personality and display rules on emotional labor in organizations. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(12), 2350–2359. https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12184
Sparr, J. L., Knipfer, K., & Willems, F. (2017). How leaders can get the most out of formal training:The significance of feedback-seeking and reflection as informal learning behaviors. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 28(1), 29–54. https://doi.org/10.1002/hrdq
Strauss, K., & Parker, S. K. (2018). Intervening to Enhance Proactivity in Organizations: Improving the Present or Changing the Future. Journal of Management, 44(3), 1250–1278. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206315602531
Thomas, J. P., Whitman, D. S., & Viswesvaran, C. (2010). Employee proactivity in organizations: A comparative meta-analysis of emergent proactive constructs. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 83(2), 275–300. https://doi.org/10.1348/096317910X502359
Tornau, K., & Frese, M. (2013). Construct Clean-Up in Proactivity Research: A Meta-Analysis on the Nomological Net of Work-Related Proactivity Concepts and their Incremental Validities. Applied Psychology, 62(1), 44–96. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1464-0597.2012.00514.x
Wijaya, N. H. S. (2019). Linking job dissatisfaction, learning motivation, creative work involvement, and proactive personality. Problems and Perspectives in Management, 17(1), 32–41. https://doi.org/10.21511/ppm.17(1).2019.04