THE FINE ART OF PARTICIPANT STRETCHING

A few years back, I was involved with a colleague in designing and running a series of management programmes for an international company, whose Belgian HR Director was firmly of the view that people only learn from training and development if they are emotionally upset.  Whatever brief he gave us for a new programme, his final injunction was always the same.  He would lean towards us, his eyes narrowing like a James Bond villain, and say quietly: “I want you to touch them.”

Before this finds its way into the Daily Mail, I should point out that this was not meant literally (ah, the wonders of English as a second language, like the participant in a team exercise who said: “I want to share with you what is coming out of my stomach.”).  He simply wanted us to emotionally engage each participant at a fundamental level.  ‘Simply’ did I say?  Hah!  It is, apart from anything else, an ethical and psychotherapeutic nightmare.  To which, inevitably, I shall return in a while.

First, though, there is an intellectual debate to be had.  Can this possibly be true?  Why can’t our personal development be the result of gentle, pleasant experiences?  Certainly the assumption behind most training and development activity is that it can.  Hence the easy, calm discussions on a typical training workshop about the theory of how to improve your managerial style.  Hence the execrable ‘action planning’ session, during which participants enthusiastically note down an optimistic list of ambitious intentions involving fundamental shifts of mindset, the breaking of deep-seated behavioural habits, and the achievement of world peace – all by Tuesday week.

As a practitioner, the problem with challenging this cosy world is that none of the stakeholders are on your side.  Participants by and large come to training and development activities with positive intentions; they will nod sagely through your introductory words about moving out of comfort zones; but when you catapult them out of theirs they will fight back, usually with a low rating on the aptly named ‘happy sheet.’  Clients by and large are eloquent on the need for fundamental skills improvement, until they see the happy sheet scores resulting from your terrifying – I’m sorry, ‘challenging’ – approach. 

Personal development, although generally regarded as a ‘good thing’, has a dark side.  It is, after all, change under a more palatable name.  And change hurts.  The organisational change researcher Daryl Conner (the originator of everyone’s favourite cliché, the ‘burning platform’) makes the point that people do not change because it seems like a good idea, or because it is a personal growth experience; they change when they have no choice, when they feel the flames at their back. 

In their book on personal change, Following Through, Steve Levinson and Pete Grieder observe that human beings have a well developed higher order processing capability, which usually decides that personal development is a good idea.  We also have a primitive motivational setup, which moves away from pain and towards pleasure, and hence goes off personal development the minute we have to do something uncomfortable.  In this respect, undertaking a development activity is not much different from giving up smoking.  We understand intellectually why it’s a good idea; but once we start we discover that it’s less painful to keep our current habits than to break them.

Such portentous insight is all very well; but when faced with a client who says “I want you to touch them” and a bunch of participants who don’t want to be touched, what kind of approach can be justified, ethically and organisationally?  Trainers and development consultants have a duty of care to participants to keep them safe and not to start anything they can’t finish within the confines of the programme in question.

One needs, also, to think differently about the relationship between those who commission training and those who provide it.  I cannot safely lead participants out of their comfort zone without the trust and support of my client.  If the ‘buyer’ of training and development is disempowered, or caught up in political infighting, then sponsorship of the training is weakened and my ability to challenge participants is also weakened.  Many participants do not necessarily realise how much they have learned until some weeks after the programme, and it’s not unknown for a participant who feels he/she has been overchallenged (especially if he or she is a ‘conscript’ rather than volunteer) to make a formal complaint.  Managing such risks requires a partnership approach between commissioner and provider.

Meanwhile, should you ever find yourself on one of my workshops and are tempted to give it a low rating, rest assured this is a sign you are going to get maximum learning one day. (To paraphrase Ken Dodd, it’s an educational process: participants walk out afterwards saying: “Well, that’s taught me a lesson…”)

 

© Phil Lowe, 2005.  All rights reserved.