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Journal of Managerial Psychology

Signaling the importance of training


Annette Towler Aaron Watson Eric A. Surface
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Annette Towler Aaron Watson Eric A. Surface , (2014),"Signaling the importance of training", Journal of
Managerial Psychology, Vol. 29 Iss 7 pp. 829 - 849
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Signaling the
Signaling the importance importance of
of training training
Annette Towler
Department of Psychology, DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois, USA, and
829
Aaron Watson and Eric A. Surface
SWA Consulting Inc., Raleigh, North Carolina, USA Received 23 March 2012
Revised 29 October 2012
11 May 2013
Abstract Accepted 26 June 2013
Purpose – In this study of 815 military personnel, the purpose of this paper is to examine how
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perceived leader behaviors are related to trainee perceptions of leader training priorities and to trainee
priority for training, and whether trainee motivation to transfer of training moderated the relationship
between trainee perceptions and trainee priority for training.
Design/methodology/approach – Participants who were experienced job incumbents responded to
a survey related to foreign language usage, training, and policy.
Findings – When leaders showed support for training through their actions, trainees were more
likely to perceive their leaders as placing a higher priority on training. Leader behaviors predicted
trainee priority to train, because trainees believed their leaders set a higher priority for training.
The leader behaviors that were important for trainees’ priority to train were discretionary behaviors,
not those leader behaviors mandated by the organization. Trainee perceptions of leader priority were
more positively predictive of trainees’ priority to train for trainees with less motivation to transfer
of training.
Originality/value – Supervisor support is an important predictor of training outcomes. The authors
expand this literature by focussing on the signals that leaders send to their subordinates regarding
training priority. Leaders who exhibited discretionary behaviors in support of training appeared to
create an environment in which trainees placed greater importance on training. Organizations need
to be aware that mandating training activities might not be as important as encouraging leaders to
place value on discretionary activities.
Keywords Leadership, Training, Motivation, Signaling theory, Leader behaviors,
Priority for training
Paper type Research paper

The American Society of Training and Development estimate that employers spent
$156.2 billion on employee learning in 2011. Given the investment in employee training,
it is important to identify those factors that contribute to trainee intention to prioritize
training in their work schedules. Training is optimized when adult learners are

This research used data collected during an organization-level needs assessment study
sponsored by the Special Operations Forces Language Office (SOFLO), US Special Operations
Command (USSOCOM). The research was conducted by SWA Consulting Inc. (SWA) as a
subcontractor under prime contract N65236-08-D-6805.Throughout the paper, the terms study
and research are used interchangeably. The usage of these words is not meant to imply that the
investigation drew upon any particular source of funding within or outside of the organization.
Furthermore, the views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily
reflect the positions or policies of the SOFLO, the USSOCOM, the US government, or SWA.
Journal of Managerial Psychology
Eric A. Surface was the project’s principal investigator. The authors thank Jack Donnelly and Vol. 29 No. 7, 2014
Mark Roemer for their support of using SOFLO project data for research purposes and Reanna pp. 829-849
r Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Harman, Sarah Bienkowski and Lauren Brandt for their work and support on the original project 0268-3946
data collection. DOI 10.1108/JMP-03-2012-0092
JMP motivated to train. Priority to train may be an inherent characteristic of trainees
29,7 or influenced by pre-training or in-training events. Sources of trainee priority to train
include perceived utility/applications of the material, internally or externally
determined goal orientation, and the extent to which training and development
activities are supported by key personnel within the organization (Noe and Colquitt,
2002). Showing support for training and development within the organization is
830 an important predictor of learning outcomes (Baldwin and Ford, 1988). Leaders
(e.g. managers, supervisors, executives, etc.) can play an influential role in defining
and implementing HR policies, HR practices, and expectations that shape employee
participation in training. Previous research has found that leader support is an
important predictor of trainee priority to train (e.g. Quiñones et al., 1995; Facteau et al.,
1995; Chiaburu et al., 2010; Kuvaas and Dysvik, 2010; Cromwell and Kolb, 2004;
Baldwin and Ford, 1988).
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The nature of organizational life imposes a number of policies and practices on


individual attitudes, behaviors, and cognitions. Central to this thesis is that employees,
for the most part, are accountable for their actions, and answerable to figures in
authority because of the hierarchical nature of organizations (Ross, 1973; Mero et al.,
2014; Halevy et al., 2011). A recent field study of sales staff and their supervisors
(Mero et al., 2014) found that when managers monitored their subordinates’ actions,
subordinates felt more accountable for their actions and this influenced their sales
performance. The authors point out that “our results suggest that employees
use managerial behavior as a cue to help them make sense of expectations in the
workplace” (p. 19). This body of research suggests that subordinates look to their
managers to provide explanations about organizational life and use this information
to inform their own attitudes and behaviors (Salancik and Pfeffer, 1978). Because
managers are influential, they can signal the importance they place on human resource
practices such as employee training and development (Baldwin and Magjuka, 1991).
These signals can influence trainee perceptions concerning the importance of training
within the organization and can further affect how they prioritize training within the
broader scope of their work activities. Even if training is mandatory, the signals that
managers send to their subordinates, can influence the extent to which subordinates
are vested in the training. For example, if subordinates hear a manager downplaying a
particular training initiative, they are less likely to be attentive during a training class.
Training is an event that occurs among other organizational events and the
meaning and significance that employees attach to training can be influenced by
management actions that are implicit or explicit (Baldwin and Magjuka, 1997). In this
sense, training is a socially constructed event because the significance of any episode
within training, such as training implementation or evaluation, can be interpreted
in different ways by trainees (Baldwin and Magjuka, 1997). It seems important to
examine whether leader behaviors influence trainee perceptions of the priority that
leaders place on training and what types of leader behaviors influence these
perceptions.
In this study, we use signaling theory to explain how leader behaviors are related to
trainee perceptions regarding the importance of training to organizational leaders and,
in turn, trainee priority to train. Researchers in organizational behavior and human
resource management have utilized signaling theory to explain several processes, such
as political behavior (Hochwater et al., 2007) and the hiring process (e.g. Ehrhart and
Ziegert, 2005). Signaling theory suggests that when individuals lack organizational
knowledge they make inferences from the information they have about the
organization and its constituents (Spence, 1974). Individuals consider a variety of Signaling the
environmental variables as signals including organizational policies (e.g. Cable and importance of
Judge, 1994) and recruiter behavior (Rynes, 1991; Turban et al., 1998).
Our model of trainee perceptions (shown in Figure 1) suggests that: leader training
behaviors act as signals that are related to leader’s priority for training, leader priority
is related to trainee priority to train, and trainee motivation to transfer training to
the work environment moderates the relationship between leader behaviors and 831
trainee priority to train.

Signaling theory and leader support of training


Previous research in HR development research shows that when supervisors show
support for training, their subordinates tend to be motivated to learn and to transfer
the knowledge they have acquired during training (e.g. Chiaburu et al., 2010; Kuvaas
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and Dysvik, 2010; Cromwell and Kolb, 2004: Facteau et al., 1995). A study among
over 900 government employees examined whether organizational factors such as
social support from a variety of organizational groups (i.e. top management, supervisors,
peers, and subordinates) predicted post-training outcomes (Facteau et al., 1995).
They found that the overall reputation of training, incentives, organizational
commitment, and three sources of social support (subordinate, supervisor, and top
management) were related to pre-training motivation. Moreover, pre-training motivation,
social support from supervisors, peers and subordinates, were predictors of post-training
transfer of training (Facteau et al., 1995). However, a review of transfer of training
suggests that although progress has been made in understanding the influence of
environmental factors on training transfer of training, more research is needed to explore
supervisor support as a training input (Blume et al., 2010).
How are leader behaviors related to trainee perceptions of the importance that
leaders place on training activities? Signaling theory provides a useful framework for
considering how management conveys expectations to employees concerning human
resource management practices (Connelly et al., 2011) and those they view as important
(Pfeffer, 1981). These signals can influence employee attitudes and behavior because
employees look to their superiors to gain information surrounding important
organizational practices. Theory and research on hierarchy in organizations suggests
that employees look to their managers rather than their peers to fulfill their need for
certainty and structure concerning organizational practices and policies (Halevy et al.,
2011). Management behaviors, such as supervisor support, can reveal the extent to

Trainee
motivation to
transfer

Perceived
discretionary
leader behaviors
Perceptions of
leader priority for Trainee
Figure 1.
training priority to train
Perceived Conceptual model of
nondiscretionary trainee perceptions of
leader behaviors leader priority
JMP which trainees are able to actively shape their own development in the training process
29,7 (Tannenbaum and Yukl, 1992). An organization’s management of its training programs
and resources relative to other programs can signal the extent to which training is
valued within the organization and can also influence employees’ beliefs regarding the
psychological contract between themselves and their employer (Suazo et al., 2009).
Signaling theory has been utilized in previous studies of human resource
832 management practices, such as recruitment and the hiring process (e.g. Ryan et al.,
2000). For example, interviewees tend to select themselves out of the hiring process
when they form negative perceptions of an organization’s standing within the
community (Ryan et al., 2000). Signaling theory proposes a process of communication
with signals being sent to employees who observe and interpret the signals and then
send feedback, typically to inform managers that they have received and interpreted
the signal. For example, a manager might be aware of research and development
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results concerning a new company product that will require incumbents to be involved
in extensive training. Managers can engage in behaviors that send signals to
employees regarding how important they view this training, and employees can make
a decision on whether to participate in this training based on the communications they
receive from their manager. In this sense, employees may provide feedback to their
manager that they have received and processed the signals they have been sent by
signing up to participate in the training.
Training and development is an important HR function because it provides
employees with information regarding their roles and the knowledge, skills, and
abilities required to perform effectively in their positions (Suazo et al., 2009). In fact,
the way in which training is framed can influence investment in the training process.
Management can change employees’ perceptions of training programs through the
information that they provide to employees regarding the content of a training class.
For example, Quiñones (1995) demonstrated that describing a training course as
remedial or advanced influenced trainee motivation and performance.
Previous research suggests that organizations send signals to their employees on
the specific importance they place on employee training and development (Baldwin
and Magjuka, 1991). Baldwin and Magjuka (1991) conducted a field study among 193
engineering employees to examine whether management actions influence trainee
intention to transfer of training. Using signaling theory as a framework, Baldwin and
Magjuka (1991) point out “the organizational literature has suggested that all
management actions send signals to employees that affect perceptions and influence
behavior” (p. 26). In their study, they first identified management actions that were
seen as important signals concerning training within this particular organization.
These management actions included: the extent to which employees were held
accountable to their supervisor regarding post-training review of skills they had
acquired, whether they perceived a training program as mandatory or voluntary, and
whether they received information concerning the program prior to training. Trainees
completed a measure containing three items that tapped into these three antecedents of
perceived motivation to transfer of training. The findings revealed that trainees stated
that they were more likely to transfer learning to their jobs when they received
information about the training content prior to training, they recognized they were
accountable to their supervisor, and they perceived a program as mandatory. Pre-
information, accountability, and program status were management signals to
employees concerning the importance placed on training activities within the
organization (Baldwin and Magjuka, 1991).
We extend Baldwin and Magjuka’s research through focussing on perceptions Signaling the
of specific leader behaviors and the relation of these behaviors to trainee perceptions importance of
of leader training priorities. Baldwin and Magjuka (1991) did not specifically measure
leader behaviors, but suggested leaders will support training activities that they training
believe are important for the effective functioning of their organization. Training
activities that are mandated by the organization will be viewed as most important
because leaders might see these activities as being directly related to effective 833
performance within their organization or feel more accountable because they are
evaluated on these activities. We are not suggesting that mandated training activities
are the most beneficial for a leader’s organization. The important issue is that leader
perceptions of “what matters” can affect their behavior and can send signals to
employees that are related to employees’ perceptions of the extent to which training is
valued in the organization. Supervisors can play an important role in encouraging or
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discouraging their subordinates in the extent to which they apply their newly acquired
knowledge, skills, and abilities to their jobs (Baldwin and Ford, 1988; Holton et al.,
2001; Huczynski and Lewis, 1980). Early in their careers, subordinates receive signals
from their managers concerning the extent to which training is seen as important
within the organization (Feldman, 1989).
In this study, we focus on trainee perceptions of the relative priority of job-related
foreign language training to other training requirements in a military context.
Proficiency in a foreign language is a necessary skill in many military occupations
(Silva and White, 1993) and is a critical job and mission-enhancing skill for many
occupations in this specific organization. If a leader reduces the time or budget for a
specific type of training, then employees might interpret that action as a signal the
leader does not care about this type of training, especially if other training resources
are not diminished. If leaders signal support for training activities, we presume that
trainees will perceive these activities to be more important to their leader and
organization.
Furthermore, the degree to which leader behaviors signal the leader’s priority
(as perceived by trainees) is expected to vary as a function of the discretionary or
nondiscretionary nature of those behaviors. In a study of employed MBA students,
Baldwin and Magjuka (1991) found that employees make a distinction between
management “permission” and meaningful management support. For example,
managers can spend money on training and give permission to their subordinates to
attend classes, but might lack commitment to follow-up once trainees have finished
courses (Baldwin and Magjuka, 1991). We argue the discretionary nature of the
support behaviors that leaders exhibit will be related to behaviors on trainee
perceptions of leaders’ true priorities or values. Leader behaviors in support of
mandated and resourced organizational policy are not expected to provide as strong
a signal of that leader’s priority for training as are nonmandated, discretionary
behaviors supporting training activities. Discretionary behaviors are voluntary, not
mandated by organizational policies yet are legal within the workplace and are often
an integral part of cultural norms within the organization (Porter et al., 2003). Because
discretionary behaviors are not mandated by the organization and are driven by
personal motives rather than mandated by the organization, these behaviors originate
from the individual rather than through organizational policies so they are driven
by intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivators, and they are more highly valued by
organizational members than mandatory behaviors because they do not require
organizational resources such as monitoring or extrinsic rewards (Tyler and Blader,
JMP 2003). Discretionary behaviors, which are not driven by organizational mandates, have
29,7 the greatest potential for increasing viability within work organizations, particularly
when organizations are experiencing difficult times and are not able to provide
adequate financial compensation to their employees (Tyler and Blader, 2003). In this
way, trainees consider factors both internal and external to the leader when forming
perceptions of the leader’s priority for training.
834
Leader priority and trainee priority to train
Trainee priority to train can be thought of generally as the level of importance
individuals assign to training and development activities relative to other job
requirements and tasks. Setting a high priority for training is one way in which
trainees demonstrate motivation to develop their skills. Previous research suggests
that trainees are motivated to train when they perceive their work environment to be
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supportive of learning and transfer of training (Noe and Colquitt, 2002; Blume
et al., 2010). When trainees believe that their supervisor supports training, they
will be more motivated to attend and learn from training (Facteau et al., 1995). Leader
behaviors that signal that learning is important and valued can motivate trainees to
apply their skills (Tracey et al., 1995). In fact, Clark et al. (1993) indicated that,
even before training, the trainee may consider whether the supervisor will support
efforts to apply trained skills from the classroom to the job. Cohen (1990) also
found that trainees with more supportive supervisors enter training with stronger
beliefs that the training will be useful. Thus, it seems that if trainees do not
believe their supervisor will support transfer of training, they will tend to believe that
the training will have limited job utility and thus may not be motivated prior to
training.
Leaders can influence the importance trainees place on training and development
through social cues and consequences (Tracey et al., 1995). Leader behaviors, such
as encouragement, providing resources to enable learning, and offering recognition
and incentives can encourage trainees’ motivation to train (Tracey et al., 1995). Leaders
can also act as role models and provide cues to their followers on how to behave
within the organization. Individuals seek role models who possess the competencies to
which they aspire. Leaders who are supportive of training can act as competent role
models who transmit knowledge and strategies to deal with the work environment
(Bass, 1990). In addition, leader priority for training is expected to create a more
positive or supportive learning environment, which will result in more motivated
trainees.
When leaders exhibit behaviors that show support for training activities, trainees
will perceive greater priority for training on the part of their leaders. In turn, we expect
that trainees who perceive that their leaders place a high priority on training will be
more likely themselves to place high priority on training:

H1. Leader behaviors supporting training will be positively related to trainee


priority to train. This relationship will be mediated by leader priority for
training.

Motivation to transfer as a moderator of leader priority for training and


trainee priority to train
Individuals enter training with differences in their commitment to acquiring new
knowledge and skills. Motivation to transfer is often described as the desire of a trainee
to use and apply knowledge and skills developed in training to relevant workplace Signaling the
applications (Noe and Schmitt, 1986). These authors would argue motivation to importance of
transfer should also include trainees’ desire to maintain their new knowledge and skills
should, as transfer of training includes both application and maintenance of trained training
skills (e.g. Baldwin and Ford, 1988). In order for a training intervention to succeed,
trainees must not only be motivated to learn but must also be motivated to use
what they have learned back on the job (Naquin and Holton, 2002) and maintain their 835
newly acquired skills (Baldwin and Ford, 1988). Motivation to transfer is an important
variable in employee training and development because it is a key indicator of
whether trainees will maintain and apply learned skills to their job (Tracey et al., 1995).
In this study, we focus on motivation to transfer as a moderator of the relationship
between trainee perceptions of leader priority and trainee priority to train. Trainees
who have a high motivation to transfer are probably attuned to cues from the
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organization, such as leader behaviors, because they feel that being an active recipient
of organizational cues will help them gain more from training and allow them to be
more invested in their own learning (Mathieu et al., 1992). Before and during training,
trainees will feel more motivated to transfer training if they believe their leader has a
priority for training.
Trainees who have a high motivation to transfer will probably be more focussed on
their own self-development and will seek out information regarding the value of
training within the organization. In a qualitative study of physicians attending a
faculty development fellowship program, physicians who had high intentions to
transfer their training displayed a high degree of long-term and short-term
professional goals through aspiring to higher positions and more responsibility in
medicine and through becoming better teachers (Yelon et al., 2004). This research
suggests that trainees who have a high motivation to transfer are concerned with
achieving a sense of mastery and are motivated to seek out certain stimuli to satisfy
their work-based motives. Consequently, trainees who have a high motivation to
transfer are probably more cognizant of their leader’s behaviors and their leader’s
priority for training. Individuals who are internally driven tend to focus on external
cues that are positively related to their self-esteem (Latham, 2007). If they value leader
support, then they are likely to focus on leader behaviors to find out what is rewarded
and important within the organization. There is some evidence to support this. In a
study of telecommunications workers, Maurer and Tarulli (1994) found that when
supervisor support was personally important to workers, supervisor support was
related to intention to participate in development initiatives.
When trainees have a high motivation to transfer their knowledge and skills, they
may notice and respond more to environmental cues in the workplace and be more
motivated to learn course material (Tharenou, 2001). A study of 1,705 Australians,
employed in the public and private sectors, examined the relationship between training
motivation and participation in training and development activities (Tharenou, 2001).
Tharenou (2001) found that trainee expectations moderated the relationship between
work environment factors and training participation. For trainees who had higher
expectations regarding the utility of the training, a supportive work environment was
more related to participation in training and development initiatives (Tharenou, 2001).
This finding suggests that trainees who had high expectations regarding training
looked for cues in the workplace. When they felt their leaders were supportive of
training, trainees were more likely to participate in employee training and development
initiatives. This study suggests that employees who are internally motivated tend to
JMP focus on external cues that support and aid their career development. Based on the
29,7 previous discussion, we predict the following:

H2. Trainee motivation to transfer training will moderate the relationship between
leader priority for training and trainee priority to train. Leader priority will be
more positively predictive of trainee priority to train for trainees with more
836 motivation to transfer.

Method
Participants
Participants (n ¼ 815) were military personnel belonging to a specific large command
within a larger military organization that sponsored and conducted the survey.
Participants who were experienced job incumbents responded to a survey related
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to foreign language usage, training, and policy. Foreign language is a required


job-enhancing skill for these incumbents. In terms of tenure, 47 percent of the
participants had worked in their current job for 1-4 years, 19 percent had worked for 5-8
years, and 14 percent of participants had worked for less than one year. Demographics
concerning sex, race, and age were not collected. However, based on known population
statistics, this sample is predominantly male and between the ages of 18-35.

Procedure
Participants were asked questions related to their leader’s support for foreign
language learning, including specific observable actions that indicate leader support
for foreign language as well as their overall perception of their leader’s prioritization
of foreign language learning and maintenance in relation to other training
requirements. Respondents were informed that the purpose of the survey was to
enhance understanding of the foreign language needs of the organization and
to guide future policy in this area. Multiple e-mails were sent to potential respondents
and the survey link was posted on various military web pages. In addition, the
leadership made two specific requests for members of the organization to respond to
the survey.
Of the 1,635 respondents who accessed the survey, 842 provided complete responses
to all items examined in this study. To ensure consistent job training and testing
policies, only the 815 respondents employed within the same military service were
retained for the final sample.

Training context
Foreign language skill is considered an important mission-enhancing skill for the
military job incumbents in our study. Members of this organization must complete an
initial foreign language training course – 19-25 weeks depending on the language - and
achieve a minimum standard on a proficiency test in order to be able to enter
into their job in this organization. Once assigned to a unit within this organization, the
incumbent is responsible for annual testing related to assessing the maintenance of
their skill level and to the administration of skill-based pay. Organizational policy
mandates that unit leaders are responsible for ensuring annual testing and for
providing specified training support. Units are provided specific training resources by
the overarching organization. Training events and resources vary from unit to unit
with some resources being uniformly available across all units within this command.
The incumbents operate in a context where the current operations tempo (i.e. deployments
and missions) is extremely high, the skill maintenance (training) requirements are Signaling the
numerous (i.e. many mission and job skills to compete with language training for priority), importance of
and the training time is limited.
training
Measures
Perceived leader behaviors. Respondents were asked questions developed for this study
regarding organizational climate and support. Respondents rated their leader on how 837
well the leader displayed behaviors that showed support for foreign language training.
Items were targeted at either discretionary or nondiscretionary leader behaviors.
In total, six items measured discretionary behaviors, including “ensures that personnel
in language training are not pulled for non-critical tasks/duties” and “provides me with
recognition and awards related to language proficiency.” Protecting training time and
providing awards for language learning are entirely discretionary activities. In total,
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four nondiscretionary behavior items included “places command emphasis on taking


annual proficiency tests” and “provides me with language learning materials.” Annual
testing is mandated and leaders are specifically evaluated on the level of testing as a
readiness issue. Also, language learning materials are made available to each unit by
the organization. Therefore, leaders do not need to dedicate resources to acquiring
learning materials for trainees. All items for both perceived leader behavior scales are
provided in Appendix 1 along with organizational context examples.
For the current sample, confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) showed model fit for the
a priori two-factor model (CFI ¼ 0.94, TLI ¼ 0.92, RMSEA ¼ 0.12, SRMR ¼ 0.05)[1]
was significantly improved (Dw2 [1] ¼ 363.81, po0.001, DCFI ¼ 0.06) compared to a
model in which all leader behavior items were loaded onto a single factor (CFI ¼ 0.88,
TLI ¼ 0.85, RMSEA ¼ 0.16, SRMR ¼ 0.06). Standardized factor loadings for the six
discretionary leader behavior items ranged from 0.80 to 0.86, and those for the four
nondiscretionary behavior items ranged from 0.68 to 0.87. Internal consistency
reliabilities for these scales are presented in Table I.
Leader priority for training. Participants rated their leader on one item, which asked
“In terms of priority, where do you think your immediate leader places language
learning and maintenance?” Responses were closed ended, with response options
consisting of 5 (language takes priority over all other training requirements), 4
(language takes priority over most other training requirements), 3 (language is equal
in priority to other training requirements), 2 (most other requirements take priority
over language), and 1 (all other requirements take priority over language). This item
was developed for this study.
Trainee priority to train. Participants rated the item, “In terms of priority, where
do you place language learning and maintenance?” Responses were closed ended, with

M SD 1 2 3 4 5

1. Perceived discretionary leader behaviors 2.72 0.99 (0.93)


2. Perceived nondiscretionary leader behaviors 3.12 0.96 0.75 (0.87)
3. Leader priority 2.08 0.86 0.42 0.27 – Table I.
4. Trainee motivation to transfer 3.76 0.97 0.04 0.03 0.16 (0.92) Means, standard
5. Trainee priority to train 2.44 0.85 0.02 0.00 0.25 0.34 – deviations, and
correlations for study
Notes: n ¼ 815. |r|X0.07, po0.05; |r|X0.10, po0.01 variables
JMP response options consisting of the aforementioned five options used to rate leader
29,7 priority for training. This item was developed for this study.
Trainee motivation to transfer training. Trainee motivation to training defined as
participants’ motivation to use their trained skills on the job (skill generalization) or
actively maintain their current level of skill (skill maintenance) (Baldwin and Ford,
1988). A five-item measure of motivation to transfer was developed for this study,
838 including “how motivated are you to volunteer for duties where you can practice and
use your language skills?” and “how motivated are you to continue to develop the
language skills you have acquired? All scale items are presented in Appendix 2.
Respondents indicated their level of motivation from 1 (not motivated) to 5 (very
motivated). Results from a one-factor CFA showed acceptable model fit for these five
items (CFI ¼ 0.99, TLI ¼ 0.97, RMSEA ¼ 0.10, SRMR ¼ 0.02). Internal consistency
reliability for this scale was 0.92.
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Construct validity. To evaluate the discriminant validity of all study measures, two
CFA models were estimated. All items were first specified to load onto a single common
factor (Model 1). Next, the a priori five-factor model was evaluated allowing items to
load only onto their intended latent factors, as well as allowing factors to correlate with
one another (Model 2). For Model 2, the two single-item measures were entered as
manifest variables allowed to freely correlate with only the three latent variables.
Retaining these manifest variables allowed for a nested-model comparison between the
two models, as the variance-covariance matrices were identical (Widaman, 1985).
Fit indices for both models are presented in Table II. Results indicated model fit was
significantly improved for the a priori five-factor model, supporting the distinctness
of these measures. Goodness-of-fit for Model 2 was evaluated using recommendations
from Hu and Bentler (1999) and Schumacker and Lomax (2004). All indices (with the
exception of the w2/df ratio) were within acceptable limits as recommended by Hu and
Bentler (1999). All fit indices (with the exception of RMSEA, which was borderline)
were within acceptable limits as recommended by Schumacker and Lomax (2004).

Analytic procedure
Moderated mediation modeling (e.g. Edwards and Lambert, 2007) in a structural
equations modeling (SEM) framework was used to evaluate the study hypotheses.
The path analytic model depicted in Figure 1 was estimated using Mplus (version 6;
Muthén and Muthén, 2010). Measurement models were specified for the multi-item

Log No. of Comparison


Model likelihood parameters w2 (df ) model Dw2 Ddf CFI TLI RMSEA SRMR

Model 1 – 19,580.63 51 6,589.51* (119) – – – 0.303 0.204 0.258 0.322


one-factor CFA
Model 2 – five- 16,563.30 59 554.86* (111) 1 6,034.65* 8 0.952 0.941 0.070 0.033
factor a priori CFA
Model 3 – 16,558.29 60 – 2 10.02*a 1a – – – –
hypothesized
moderated
mediation

Table II. Notes: CFI, comparative fit index; TLI, Tucker-Lewis index; RMSEA, root mean squared error of approximation;
Goodness-of-fit for SRMR, standardized root mean squared residual; aDw2, 2(Log likelihoodModel 2 –Log likelihoodModel 3). Ddf, no. of
tested models Model 3 parametersno. of Model 2 parameters. *po0.01
perceived leader discretionary and nondiscretionary behaviors and trainee motivation Signaling the
to transfer scales. Indirect (or mediated) paths from the leader behavior measures to importance of
trainee priority to train through leader priority for training were estimated. We used
formal significance tests of the indirect path ab (e.g. Shrout and Bolger, 2002) to training
evaluate the mediated relationships. Methodologists (e.g. Shrout and Bolger, 2002) have
documented the advantages of this approach compared to multistep approaches
(e.g. Baron and Kenny, 1986) advocated in the past. A notable limitation of traditional 839
multistep approaches is the pre-condition that the predictor X must show a bivariate
relationship with the outcome Y before mediation can be tested. Shrout and Bolger
(2002) note that as the mediation process becomes more complex (e.g. in the presence of
moderators), the X-Y relationship tends to reduce in magnitude due to additional
causal pathways and extraneous factors. Therefore, methodologists have
recommended dropping the significant X-Y relationship as a pre-condition for tests
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of mediation (MacKinnon et al., 2000; Shrout and Bolger, 2002).


To specifically evaluate the moderated mediation hypothesis, we tested the
latent-by-manifest interaction between trainee motivation to transfer and perceived
leader priority for training. We also evaluated the statistical significance and magnitude
of the indirect paths from leader behaviors to trainee priority to train conditional on
meaningful values of motivation to transfer (i.e. hypothesized moderator).

Results
Table I presents descriptive statistics and intercorrelations for study variables. Results
showed discretionary leader behavior correlated with leader priority (r ¼ 0.42), as did
perceived nondiscretionary leader behavior (r ¼ 0.27). Also, trainee priority to train
correlated with both leader priority (r ¼ 0.25) and motivation to transfer training (r ¼ 0.34).
In estimating the moderated mediation SEM, we evaluated the goodness-of-fit of
this model relative to the a priori five-factor model (Model 2 in Table II), which included
as manifest covariates perceived leader priority for training and trainee priority for
training. Note that the parameterization of Model 2 is an equivalent SEM to that of the
moderated mediation model if the second stage interaction term was not included.
The statistical significant reduction in the log likelihood (i.e. improvement in model fit)
following the addition of the latent-by-manifest interaction term in the second stage of
the mediation model in Model 3 supports the presence of the hypothesized interaction
(see Table II)[2]. As the nested model comparison supports the hypothesized
interaction in Model 3, we next evaluate the study hypotheses based on the parameter
estimates for this model.
Structural parameter estimates from Model 3 are presented in Figure 2. In addition to
the hypothesized paths depicted in Figure 1, direct paths were estimated between the two
perceived leader behaviors measures and trainee priority to train to evaluate partial
mediation. These results are discussed next in relation to specific study hypotheses.
The direct paths from perceived discretionary and nondiscretionary leader behavior
to perceived leader priority for training were used to evaluate H1. Results showed a
positive path for perceived discretionary behavior (b ¼ 0.58, po0.001) and a smaller
(though statistically significant) negative path for perceived nondiscretionary behavior
(b ¼ 0.22, po 0.01). To test whether the predictor paths were statistically different
from one another, the full model was re-estimated constraining these two direct paths
(from perceived discretionary and nondiscretionary leader behavior to perceived leader
priority for training) to be equal. Results of a likelihood-ratio test showed model fit
significantly degraded (Dw [1] ¼ 41.73, po0.001) when holding these two paths equal.
JMP
29,7 Trainee
Motivation to
Transfer

0.58*
Perceived –0.22* –0.10* (0.44, 0.72)
Leader
840 Discretionary
(–0.35, –0.10) (–0.17, –0.04)

Behaviors
0.58*
(0.45, 0.70)

0.73* Perceived Leader Trainee Priority for


Figure 2. (0.64, 0.83) Priority for Training 0.37* Training
Structural parameter –0.21*
(0.30, 0.44)
(–0.33, –0.08)
estimates for the partially
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mediated version of the Perceived


model of trainee Leader Non- 0.59* 0.53*
0.09
perceptions of leader Discretionary
(–0.03, 0.20)
priority for training Behaviors

For the first stage of the mediation model, discretionary and nondiscretionary leader
behaviors statistically significantly related to leader priority for training (the
mediator), which is necessary to support mediation. However, nondiscretionary leader
behaviors negatively related to perceived leader support for training. For the second
stage of the mediation model, leader priority was significantly related to trainee
priority to train (controlling for motivation to transfer). To test the presence and
direction of mediation, the indirect paths from discretionary and nondiscretionary
leader behaviors to trainee priority to train through leader priority were estimated
(see Table III). Holding motivation to transfer constant at its mean, there was a
significant positive indirect path (0.21, 95 percent CI ¼ 0.15, 0.28) from discretionary
leader behaviors to trainee priority to train through leader priority for training.
The indirect path for nondiscretionary leader behaviors was significant, but negative
(0.08, 95 percent CI ¼ 0.12, 0.03). These results provide partial support for H1,

Indirect
Conditional indirect effects effect 95 percent CI

Perceived discretionary behavior


Motivation to transferLow 0.27* 0.19, 0.34
Motivation to transferMean 0.21* 0.15, 0.28
Motivation to transferHigh 0.16* 0.09, 0.23
Difference between motivation to transferHigh and motivation to transferLow 0.10* 0.17, 0.04
Perceived nondiscretionary behavior
Motivation to transferLow 0.09* 0.15, 0.04
Motivation to transferMean 0.08* 0.12, 0.03
Motivation to transferHigh 0.06* 0.10, 0.02
Table III. Difference between motivation to transferHigh and motivation to transferLow 0.04* 0.01, 0.07
Conditional indirect
effects of perceived leader Notes: n ¼ 815. Motivation to transfer was one SD below the mean, mean-centered, and one SD above
behaviors on priority the mean for low, mean, and high levels, respectively. Statistical significance (*) of indirect effects
to train based on the exclusion of zero from the 95 percent confidence interval
in that leader priority mediated the relationship between discretionary leader Signaling the
behaviors and trainee priority to train. importance of
H2 stated trainee motivation to transfer would moderate the relationship between
leader priority for training and trainee priority to train. There was a statistically training
significant interaction between motivation to transfer and leader priority, such
that leader priority was more positively related to trainee priority for trainees with
lower motivation to transfer compared to those with higher motivation to transfer. 841
This interaction is displayed in Figure 3. Although the result was statistically
significant, this finding is in the opposite direction of H2.
The presence of the interaction in the second stage of the model suggests that the
mediated relationship between discretionary leader behaviors and trainee priority to
train varies as a function of motivation to transfer. Therefore, we evaluated the indirect
path at two meaningful values of motivation to transfer: one standard deviation
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below the mean (indirect effect ¼ 0.27) and one standard deviation above the mean
(indirect effect ¼ 0.16). Both conditional indirect paths were statistically significant
(see Table III). Furthermore, results showed a statistically significant difference
between these conditional indirect paths. These results indicate the indirect (or mediated)
prediction of discretionary leader behaviors on trainee priority to train became weaker
as motivation to transfer increased.

Discussion
In this study, we used the framework of signaling theory and tested theoretical
linkages to explain how leader behaviors are related to leader and trainees’ training
priorities to train. In addition, we tested whether trainee motivation to transfer training
moderated the relationship between leader priority and trainee priority to train.

Implications for theory


We found partial support for our hypotheses. First, we found that when leaders
showed support for training through discretionary behaviors, trainees were more
likely to perceive their leaders as placing a higher priority on training and trainees,
consequently, placed a higher value on training. Our study supports previous findings

3.5

(2.99)
3
Trainee Priority to Train

(2.51)
2.5
(2.50)

1.5 (1.70) Figure 3.


Low Motivation to Transfer (–1 SD) Interaction between
High Motivation to Transfer (+1 SD) motivation to transfer
and perceived leader
1 priority predicting trainee
–1 –0.5 0 0.5 1 priority to train
Perceived Leader Priority (Standardized)
JMP that supervisor support for training is important for employees because it signals that
29,7 management are committed to training and developing their staff (e.g. Baldwin and
Magjuka, 1991). Of interest in this study is that discretionary leader behaviors were
more important than mandated leader behaviors in influencing leader priority.
The discretionary training activities that had no official accountability mechanisms
or resources were more strongly linked to leader priority for training. This suggests
842 that informal training policies and practices, such as not pulling trainees out of class
for noncritical work events, are most important in setting a positive climate for
training. This supports signaling theory that employees pay attention to the signals
sent to them by their managers regarding the importance of human resource practices,
such as training and development. We contend that when trainees see their leaders
engage in discretionary behaviors they see these signals as more indicative of true
leader priorities because the behaviors are not mandated by the organization. These
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discretionary behaviors are most important in influencing trainee perceptions of what


matters to their leader. Future research could focus on whether other characteristics
of leader behaviors (e.g. overt vs discrete, consistent vs variable) are related to the
signals they convey to employees.
We also found that discretionary leader behaviors predicted trainee priority to train,
specifically because trainees believed that their leaders set a priority for training.
This supports the notion that perceptions individuals have concerning other people’s
behaviors can influence their own motivational state. The parsimonious explanation is
that in their context (high operations tempo, numerous training requirements, and
limited training time and resources), trainees look toward the behaviors of their leaders
for signals to prioritize training demands to evaluate the cost benefit of devoting time
to various training activities. It also supports the idea that employees look to their
managers as sources of information regarding what matters within the organization.
In this way, managers can act as role models who can boost trainee priority to train
through displaying positive behaviors and attitudes regarding training.
In the case of a job requiring foreign language skills, having leaders who
demonstrate the use of the skill is an important factor as well. If the leader uses an
interpreter on deployments or missions without even demonstrating basic foreign
language skills, such as greetings, this can send a message about the leader’s value
of learning the skill. These leader behaviors can predict trainee perceptions of the
training climate and value of training within the organization and motivate trainees
to set higher or lower priority on training certain skills. If the organization wants
incumbents to value the skill and pursue training to improve their proficiency, then
leaders need to model and demonstrate the supportive behaviors.
Our second hypothesis was not supported because the findings were in the opposite
direction than that hypothesized. We found that the mediated relationship between
leader behaviors and trainee priority to train did differ based on trainee motivation
to transfer training, accounting for 24 percent of the variance explained. However, the
nature of this interaction was that leader priority was more positively predictive of
priority to train for trainees with less motivation to transfer than for those with greater
motivation. One possible reason for this finding is that trainees with lower motivation
to transfer might benefit the most from extrinsic factors such as training interventions.
It is possible that trainees with a high motivation to transfer might be more internally
driven and do not seek external cues to motivate them. In other words, individuals
who are high in motivation to transfer language skill have evaluated the value of
training and do not need to look to leader or organizational cues to make a value
determination. There is some evidence in the training literature to support this. In a Signaling the
study of hotel workers, Stewart et al. (1996) examined the effects of conscientiousness importance of
and self-leadership training on employee self-direction. Conscientiousness moderated
the effects of self-leadership training in that low conscientious trainees improved training
their self-directed behavior more than highly conscientious trainees. The authors
argued that highly conscientious individuals engage in self-directed behavior and,
consequently, perceive less need for additional change. Applying this explanation to 843
the current study, individuals high on motivation to transfer have already evaluated
that the skill is valuable and needed on the job and the cues from leaders and the
organization may only serve to reinforce this view. However, individuals with low
motivation to transfer may not see the value of the skill to their job, but are willing
to make training this skill a priority if the leader signals it is valued. This finding was
practically significant (accounting for 24 percent of the variance in trainee priority
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for training), suggesting these relationships have implications for how organizations
implement their training policies and procedures. The finding suggests that
organizations need to pay particular attention to employees who are less motivated
to learn through framing training opportunities in a positive way that enhances their
experience and engages them.

Future research
Future research should focus on other individual differences that are important
for training, such as goal orientation and conscientiousness (Colquitt and Simmering,
1998). Organizations need to be aware of supporting employees who lack internal
motivation through effective training interventions. In fact, our findings suggest
that these initiatives should be informal rather than mandated by the organization.
Leaders can be trained about the importance of employee training to facilitate an
effective work environment (Arthur et al., 2003) and how to promote a work climate
that supports transfer of training.

Study limitations
There are several limitations to this study. First, the use of self-report data may
increase the possibility of common-method variance. However, the presence of near
zero correlations between several of the study’s variables suggests that common-method
variance is not a major limitation. To reduce possible common-method bias, different
response formats (i.e. scale anchors) were used to assess the measured variables, with
the exception of the leader and trainee priority items (which shared common response
options). Also, respondents were assured that their responses were anonymous and no
personally identifying information was collected. However, future studies could
include the use of more objective data or other source data to reduce the possibility of
mono-method bias.
A second limitation is the strong relationship (r ¼ 0.75) between the perceived
discretionary and nondiscretionary leader behavior scales. Though the nondiscretionary
leader behavior items were mandated (and resourced) by the organization, respondents’
perceptions of leaders’ performance of these behaviors was as variable as discretionary
behaviors (i.e. not mandated or resourced). A review of the descriptive statistics and
scatterplot for these two measures revealed comparable variability and ranges of scores.
While these constructs are clearly strongly related in the current sample, the CFA results
supported the notion that perceived discretionary and nondiscretionary leader behavior
are distinct facets of the broader construct of perceived leader training support
JMP behaviors. Scholars (e.g. Marsh et al., 2004) have noted that strong relationships between
29,7 predictors adds complexity to the interpretation of the regression estimates in SEM
analyses. However, the size of the confidence intervals for the associated path estimates
were not so wide as to suggest multicollinearity substantially degraded the precision of
the parameter estimation. Importantly, these distinct facets related differently, and in
a theoretically consistent manner, to trainees’ perceptions of their leader’s priority for
844 training. Future research would benefit from examining these constructs in a variety
of organizational settings to better understand the distinctiveness with which trainees
perceive leaders’ discretionary and nondiscretionary support behaviors.
A third limitation of the research is the use of cross-sectional data, which limits the
ability to infer causal relationships. Future research investigating the long-term
effects of leader behaviors on trainee perceptions and trainee motivation are needed.
Finally, we were unable to measure on-the-job training behaviors and decisions
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of sample respondents, only respondents’ motivation to train. Future research should


replicate the current findings in predicting actual learner behaviors or choices
regarding training participation.
One of the strengths of our study is that our field sample consisted of employees
actively involved in training and development activities. Our study was conducted
in a military setting where the lines of command are hierarchical and directive.
Consequently, our findings need to be replicated in other samples and settings.
This study suggests that perceived leader behaviors are related to trainee perceptions
concerning leader priority for training. In addition, these perceptions are related to
trainees’ priority to train, particularly for those who are low in motivation to transfer
trained skills to the job. Future research could focus on other factors that are important
in creating a supportive and effective climate for training. For example, the
relationships between our constructs might vary in flatter vs more hierarchical
organizations, given the importance of hierarchy in organizations (Halevy et al., 2011).

Implications for practice and society


In conclusion, our findings support signaling theory, which posits employees observe
leader behavior and make conclusions regarding the reasons why leaders engage in
such behaviors. The findings suggest that the qualities of the behaviors which leaders
exhibit play an important role in how followers interpret those behaviors. Leaders
who exhibited discretionary behaviors in support of training appeared to create an
environment in which trainees placed greater importance on training. The conclusion
is that informal, discretionary practices play a key role in cultivating a supportive and
effective environment for training. Organizations need to be aware that mandating
training activities might not be as important as encouraging leaders to place value on
discretionary activities. Our findings suggest that this is particularly true for trainees
who have low motivation to transfer.

Notes
1. CFI, comparative fit index; TLI, Tucker-Lewis index; RMSEA, root mean squared error of
approximation and SRMR, standardized root mean squared residual.
2. Numerical integration was required to perform the maximum likelihood estimation of the
latent-by-manifest interaction term. w2 and traditionally reported alternative fit indices
(e.g. RMSEA) are not available when numerical integration is used. The log likelihood is the
only available fit index with which to compare alternative models. Also, standardized
coefficients and R2 estimates are not available for such models.
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Appendix 1

Scale items Organizational context

Discretionary leader behavior scale


Allocates duty time to language training Training resources are provided by the organization,
or language practice but individual leaders are responsible for the amount
and scheduling of training time
Encourages the use of language during Providing encouragement outside of formal
nonlanguage training language training events is entirely discretionary
Places command emphasis on the importance The organization requires trainees to complete an
of language proficiency annual proficiency test, but individual leaders have
no requirements to emphasize the importance of
proficiency development
Provides support to help me acquire and Leaders are not required to support trainees’ efforts
maintain enough proficiency to qualify for to acquire skill-based bonus pay
skill-based bonus pay
Provides me with recognition and awards The organization does not require leaders to provide
related to language proficiency special recognition related to training performance
Ensures that personnel in language training Leaders are not explicitly required to schedule all
are not pulled for noncritical tasks/duties nontraining work tasks around training
Nondiscretionary leader behavior scale
Provides me with language learning The organization provides training materials
materials necessary to achieve the foreign language-related job
requirement
Ensures quality language instruction is Quality language training is provided and sponsored
available to me by the organization. This is available to all units with
a requirement
Ensures pre-deployment training is Pre-deployment training is provided and sponsored
available to me by the organization. All deploying personnel are
required to receive it
Places command emphasis on taking Trainees are required to complete annual proficiency
annual proficiency tests testing to ensure minimum proficiency and unit
Table AI. readiness. This organizational requirement is not at
Perceived leader behavior the discretion of individual leaders
scales
Appendix 2. Motivation to transfer scale items Signaling the
How motivated are you toy
importance of
(1) Continue to develop the language skills you have acquired? training
(2) Receive additional language training?
(3) Volunteer for duties where you can practice and use your language skills?
849
(4) Learn more about the culture associated with your language?
(5) Give maximum effort to language training in the future?

About the authors


Dr Annette Towler is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the DePaul University. Her work
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has appeared in publications such as Human Resource development Quarterly, Journal of Applied
Psychology, Personnel Psychology, Organizational Research Methods and Human Resource
Management. Her research has primarily focussed on improving training design features to
increase transfer of employee skills to the workplace. She has also received external funding from
the Army Research Institute to conduct research on factors influencing the design and conduct of
effective technology-delivered Instruction. In 2010-2011, she was a scholar-in-residence at SWA
Consulting.
Dr Aaron Watson is an Organizational Research Consultant at the SWA Consulting Inc.
He has conducted research on training evaluation and effectiveness, computer-based and
videogame-based training, and motivation in learning contexts. His work has been presented at
the annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology and the
annual meeting of the Academy of Management.
Dr Eric A. Surface is the Co-founder, President, and Lead Industrial/Organizational
Psychologist at the SWA Consulting Inc. He has been conducting applied research and
consulting related to work analysis, learning, performance, and organizational success for over
15 years. His work has been published in Military Psychology, Journal of Applied Psychology,
Personnel Psychology, Organizational Research Methods, Journal of Management, and Foreign
Language Annals. He authored the chapter on training needs assessment for the Handbook of
Work Analysis. He has been the Principal Investigator on numerous projects related to learning
and testing. Work-related learning, performance, and context are his primary research interest
areas.

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