Think on Your Feet

Hierarchy: A Factor That Makes or Breaks Your Training

So, you have done a LNA (Learning Needs Analysis) and decided to do some upskilling and reskilling for your employees.

Your junior executives enthusiastically accepted the training invitations. But unexpectedly, you encountered some resistance from the more ‘senior’ people in the organisation – ‘senior’ in this case mean both rank and tenure.

You feel confused.

At one point in time, these people were very happy to participate in training. In fact, some of them openly attributed training to their promotions up the ranks.

So, what happened?

“An open-minded and diverse population that readily shares information encourages experimentation, accepts failure and dispenses with formality and hierarchy is what makes Silicon Valley the successful hub that it is.”
~ Vivek Wadhwa

Time has changed. With that, the context of your training has also changed. Where previously it was more focused on upskilling, now, it is more about reskilling and new skilling as you prepare your employees for a future driven by Industrial Revolution 4.0.

Training can be a sensitive issue

Research done by MIT Sloan Management(1) showed that in this context, your junior employees – who are likely to be digital natives – tend to benefit more from the training than senior employees. This can upset existing status hierarchies, no matter if the hierarchy is based on tenure, role or expertise.

Why should you pay attention to hierarchy?

Hierarchy is a natural way for humans to self-organise because it makes it easier for someone to dictate the amount of respect, assumed competence, and deference in another person.

So, when a junior executive shows how much more competent he or she is at doing the task than her senior, it can beg the question, “Why am I a junior when I can do a better job than my senior?”.

This can become a sensitive issue because it can trigger insecurities among your employees who are currently at senior ranks and tenure.

I hear some of you say, “But training benefits seniors too because it makes them future-ready and relevant. Our company is investing in them because we recognise the importance in retaining more experienced employees.”

 Logically this makes sense. But fully relying on logic and reasoning can backfire in some situations that affects individuals at a more personal level.

Our brains, ‘the centre of logic’, processes information at different levels based on how critical it is to our survival.

The Triune Brain model developed by neurologist Paul McLean best describes how our brain works. I will explain briefly here:

Reptilian Brain is the ‘core’ of our brain where our basic needs are processed. When we make decisions based on the Reptilian Brain, we are prioritising our own individual survival.
Mammalian Brain focuses on ‘group acceptance’ as evolution proved that humans have a better chance of thriving when working together instead of individually.
Neocortex: Learning Brain is where a lot of ‘logical’ thinking such as maths, reasoning, etc, takes place.

If your senior training participants are processing information at the neocortex level, they are aware that training will benefit them in the longer term. However, in the meantime, they have to go through some ‘mammalian brain pains’, such as potential embarrassment when compared to their juniors.

Some may unconsciously avoid this pain, which is where they are unable to vocalise with you what is the real reason they are not so enthusiastic about the training.

How to persuade at a personal level

Broadly, here are the three ways you can use to persuade your senior colleagues to participate in the training.

1. Choose the right messenger

Ensuring that training doesn’t upset the hierarchy is important to wide adoption. One successful upskilling experiment done by MIT Sloan Management is to have both junior and senior employees rotate in the position as trainers.

This may sound counterintuitive, yet a sound strategy especially when junior employees have a better grasp at the subject. However, the end result of their experiment is clear: training participation among senior employees was higher(3).

People like learning from people who are like them.

2. Say ‘Because’

Remember the photocopier experiment, where they found best way to cut to the front of the queue was to give a reason? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can read the summary in the last link in Reference below.

You would be surprised how much more compliance you get if you explain to your employees why they should attend the training. You would also be surprised how many employees don’t know why they need to attend a training!

3. Build a sense of ownership

Here’s another psychology trick you can use to persuade. The way you phrase your sentences can help to build a sense of ownership among your employees, in turn increasing the participation rate.

Compare these two sentences:

“This training will help participants to increase their xyz skill. Objectives of the training: 1,2,3.”

“You will increase your skill in xyz. Here’s what you will learn: 1,2,3.”

Which one do you think sounds better? Here’s a hint: People like to read about themselves!

Whether you are upskilling your middle managers with Think on Your Feet® so they can conduct better meetings, or reskilling individual contributors as their roles move to team leaders, keep the hierarchy in mind as one of the factors to increase your chance of success.

Peter Drucker once famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Whether you like it or not, hierarchy is part of your company culture that can make or break your hard efforts. 


Katherine C. Kellogg , Jenna E. Myers , Lindsay Gainer, Sara J. Singer; October 2020, “Moving Violations: Pairing an Illegitimate Learning Hierarchy with Trainee Status Mobility for Acquiring New Skills When Traditional Expertise Erodes”, informsPubsOnLine

Steve Martin and Becky Sherrington, June 2021, ”How One British Isle Persuaded Its Citizens to Get Vaccinated”, Harvard Business Review

Katherine C. Kellog, June 2021, “Why Workplace Hierarchies Matter in Skill Transformation”, MIT Sloan Management Review

Susan Weinschenk Ph.D, Psychology Today, Oct 15, 2013.


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