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What does training look like in a post-truth world?

29th Nov 2016
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Truth
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Robin Hoyle is a writer, trainer and consultant. He is the author of Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement and Informal Learning in Organizations; how to create a continuous learning culture both published by Kogan Page.

So. It’s official. Post-Truth is a thing.

The Oxford Dictionary made Post-Truth its (compound) word of the year recently.

After Brexit and President-elect Trump we have entered into a whole new world that seems to re-affirm the quote accredited to Jonathan Swift, amongst others, that “a lie can travel half-way around the world while the truth is still pulling its boots on.”

In the world of learning and development, we’ve known this for years.

Perception: more important than fact?

Some years ago I engendered a lively debate among a group of participants in a leadership programme when I asserted that ‘Perception is more important than facts.’ 

The group finally agreed that there was at least some truth to this, albeit grudgingly.

An exceptional group of consultants with whom I am currently working include as one of their maxims in their extremely well researched content, ‘Logic is not persuasive’.

Although this still raises the odd eyebrow when people first encounter it, ironically a logical discussion soon sees people accepting the basic premise.

In the L&D space, we’ve long been aware that hearts were as important as minds when we are trying to help people see things differently or reflect on a world which may be slightly beyond their experience.

But primarily we seek to use emotion to turn people’s minds to the light rather than to obscure the truth in the post-flash gun blindness of knee-jerk emotional nonsense. 

One of the central tenets of my 2013 book, Complete Training is that "evidence-based techniques are more likely to work." 

Not an especially controversial statement nor one which I would have thought required defence, but in a Post-Truth environment one I cling to like a shipwrecked sailor clinging to  a barrel.

It seems that relying on evidence may be a dispensable luxury in the second decade of the 21st Century...

As well as patting ourselves on the back for predicting the importance of messages which appeal more to heart than head, we must also acknowledge that we are not immune to the darker side of the Post-Truth debate. 

This is the idea that, repeated often enough and loudly enough, a completely fabricated ‘fact’ will be given credence – even by people who really ought to know better. 

Of course, if that ‘fact’ corresponds to a widely held but erroneous belief or prejudice, then its impact is magnified.

The perception of HR & L&D

Think about how well L&D teams and HR departments in general are perceived by those in other functions in your organisations and the companies with which you work.

Are they held in the highest regard?  My experience is that extremely hard-working and well-intentioned individuals are routinely traduced as out-of-touch, not living in the real world or otherwise ineffective in their endeavours.

This is a ‘fact’ that has been repeated so frequently that it has become ‘true’.

Now, this doesn’t rank in the same league as Crooked Hillary or that all Mexicans are rapists or that £350mn a week will be re-directed to the NHS, but nonetheless it damages our profession and makes us less able to have the influence on performance that we could and should have. 

And we in L&D perpetuate the same falsehoods.

Only a fortnight ago I heard a story of a very august figure in the L&D world telling a meeting that if he returned to being a Chief Learning Officer again, the first thing he would do would be to remove all the trainers because they are a barrier to performance improvement.

Recent research reports focus on the attitudes of senior business leaders that their L&D teams are poorly equipped to support improvements in employee capability.

No evidence beyond opinion is cited in these reports and yet it makes headlines and chips away at our credibility.

So what do we do about this? 

In our Post-Truth world we need to remember to appeal to that emotional response which so often blinds people to reality in favour of the unsupported belief, the received wisdom and the comfort of self-delusion. 

We need to help people encounter reality in an environment in which they are supported to cope rather than run away yelling La-La-La.

We need to move beyond our own echo chamber and confront the misinformation which exists in the bubbles where people don’t share our world view.

We need to remember those occasions when L&D interventions have helped people be better and work smarter - situations where learning has changed people’s lives and where learning has been facilitated by professionals proud of their craft.

We need to tell our stories.

And our stories need to be true.

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