Author: Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development in the workforce. One blog is about that. The other is about tennis.

What’s in a certificate?

I have a personal bucket list and I have a workplace bucket list. One of the things on that list was to design and roll out a large scale management development programme from start to end. Not very exciting I know, but this is a blog focused on learning and organisational development type activities. This type of activity ranks pretty high for us internal practitioner types.

What did the programme look like in scale?
– 12 cohorts of 15 people
– 7 workshops
– 8 e-learning modules
– series of coaching workshops
– 7 months to complete it all

So in effect, we were putting 180 managers through this programme in an intense period of learning activity, and all at the same time. No. Mean. Feat. In the end about 115 were actively part of the programme.

It was far from easy, and there were a lot of challenges that cropped up along the way. People couldn’t stick to the cohort they were part of, and couldn’t attend the dates of sessions. People forgot they had it booked. People underestimated how long it took to get to different venues. People left the e-learning to the last minute. People were off sick. People were on leave. People were going on leave. People just returned from leave.

And although it was a sheep dip approach, a lot of people committed fully to the programme and stayed the course. They made the sessions. They participated in the learning. They networked internally with other managers. They found support amongst others they didn’t know they had. They were learning about business functions and business operations. They were having dialogue with our directors. They were giving feedback on what’s stopping them from being great. They were giving feedback on how to manage performance. They were challenging the learning they received. They were applying the learning.

Our original plan said it was going to take 7 months for everyone to complete their learning. It actually took about 9 months. I learned a lot over this time about how to keep the group engaged in the programme. How to communicate with senior managers about progress. How to support time away from the services they all provide. How to manage requests of all sorts with the learning journey. How to use our LMS better and better to support their learning.

And how did we finish? We held a graduation for everyone who completed all the learning they were required to. This was such a cool event – and it was hardly special in its design. Just simple, short and sweet. It was a two hour affair at an external venue. Senior managers and directors were invited to attend in support of their managers. Lunch was provided and we had some drinks after. We focused the graduation on getting the group to think about what next, and that was the question we put to them. Their responses were most excellent, and we can take a lot of that and make it happen. And here was the thing which surprised me no end.

Early in the programme we had requests for the programme to be endorsed or accredited in some way. My bias told me that certification isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. How. Wrong. I. Was.

It took some time, but the Chartered Management Institute endorsed the programme, and I was glad they were able to recognise us in this way. We were able to add that to the certificates we handed out to all the graduates, with a small gift, and I was simply humbled by people’s reaction to that. If we did nothing else in the graduation, and just did that, it would have been a success. Those certificates had meaning to people. It recognised them for their efforts they had made. It was a badge of honour of having completed such a comprehensive learning programme. It was recognition of the investment made into their personal development.

And, mostly, people felt proud. I had never, in a million years, expected that reaction.

The Science of Happiness part 2 – appreciation and collaboration

This is the second post in a short series on a talk I went to see last week by Tal Ben-Shahar, courtesy of Action for Happiness.

In the first, I wrote about Tal’s emphasis on reality. He lives in Israel, and in the Q&A, someone asked him the big question of how to deal with the Israel/Palestine conflict. I’ll come back to that a bit later.

Reality drives our existence. What we perceive is the truth we live. If we perceive there to be injustice, we will find it. If we perceive there to be beauty, we will find it. If we perceive there to be human misery, we will find it. If we perceive there to be love, we will find it.

Ben-Shahar made an observation that identifying this reality means we experience a range of emotions, and we have to understand those emotions and how they affect us. If it is true that reality drives existence, then it is also true that emotions drive behaviour. As a species, we have a real depth of understanding of how different emotions prepare the body and mind for action, or not.

He went on to say that it’s in experiencing painful emotions that we experience what it is to be human. Our painful emotions provide us the platform from which we can be human. As a quick, he said the only two types of people who do not experience painful emotions are psychopaths and the dead.

The resilience we build from having painful emotions is what supports our ability to experience positive emotions and positive living. We know what the bad feels like, and will try not to let that happen again. Through positive psychology techniques we support ourselves to build our psychological immune system. I loved that as an analogy.

Tal spoke about the importance of appreciation too. In marriages, once the honeymoon period is over, we start to recognise the imperfections in our partners. We start to let those imperfections become more important than their positive attributes. Reality drives existence. If we focus on the imperfections we see only imperfections.

One of the things that helps is to make efforts to appreciate your partner. Verbally this is important as you are recognising them openly. Our actions also show this, and gestures like small gifts or in kind are important. When we appreciate the good, the good appreciates. Nice, no?

We need to appreciate our imperfect selves better, and in doing so we can appreciate others better. It can be challenging to live well, if we don’t practise appreciation.

Finally he spoke about conflict. In conflict, often the focus is on two differing opinions and the debate nearly always comes back to that. He described, though, a potential way of reconciliation. Imagine if the two parties collaborated on a task which was for the greater good. The collaboration would allow the two parties to start to focus on something other than their conflict. The conflict could and should still be addressed. But the collaboration would mean you are cultivating optimism and hope through an activity for the better good.

He was open and modest enough to recognise there is no easy answer to the Israel/Palestine conflict. However, two people from either side have collaborated in such a way as to focus on the greater good, and this does lay down the path for hope in this situation, even though it may be a long way to come.

It was all kinds of awesome to listen to Tal Ben-Shahar.

The Science of Happiness part 1 – Reality is important

This is a short series of posts where I’m writing about a talk I went to last week on the topic of: The Science of Happiness. It was held by Action for Happiness, and the speaker was Tal Ben-Shahar. In the field of positive psychology, Tal is one of the leading figures of academia, practise and thought leadership.

There is something about someone who understands basic things about audience dynamics before he’s even started the presentation which I enjoy. On this evening, Tal made comment that he doesn’t like to do evening talks because that’s when we should be with our family’s or loved ones and spending time with them. He also said that he was told by the compere that he had to keep the talk short and that the hall was only booked until midnight (the programme was due to end about 8:30 pm).

From there it was just a treat to listen to him talk. He relayed a story about someome asking him what’s the one secret to happiness? He replied, there isn’t one, but three – reality, reality, reality. And this was a repeated theme during his talk.

For me, I loved hearing this. He spoke about the work that’s been done in this field and said that time and again it’s not extraordinary or successful people who are any more happy than anyone else. Instead it’s that there are ordinary people, showing ordinary attributes which help them be happy.

Personal is everything. Perspective is everything. There is no global panacea for happiness. It’s all about you and what sense you make of the world.

He continued by telling us how in children we see the best of what this could be. When faced with hard situations, challenging life options and an unclear future, is when resilience is most important. When people are able to consider the following, they allow themselves to build their resilience and have a better future:
– clear future goals
– being kind to others / volunteering
– an optimistic outlook
– identifiable role models
– physical exercise

There’s a lot to say about that list and to help people understand them better. It’s far from exhaustive but are broad categories that capture a lot of behaviours which are beneficial to individuals.

When he started talking about how our thinking affects our reality, I was agreeing vigorously. If our focus is on what’s not going right, then the solutions and insights we seek are only supportive to that. That only makes sense to me and I’m left saying, of course it does! But it’s one of those obvious statements that sometimes needs stating.

The opposite is also, clearly, true. If our focus is on what’s going well, then the solutions and insights we seek will be in support of that.

Remember, reality is important. If we’re not addressing reality, we’re not giving ourselves the right opportunities to be happy. Answering questions around what’s not working are useful and important. Answering questions around what’s working well help provide optimism and hope.

In part two I’ll talk about appreciation, imperfect people, and psychopaths, all from Tal Ben-Shahar’s talk.

Jarring, facilitation and positivity

Some months back, I was munching and lunching with Doug Shaw and we were talking about a good number of things. In particular we ambled on talking about helping groups with positive actions and positive behaviours who may not be ready for it.

Facilitation, when done well, is by essence a positive experience. It normally helps a group move forward and progress their thinking. Facilitators are mindful of energy levels, positive interactions, feedback, techniques and more besides. All this fits into the kitbag of what the facilitator is capable of doing and how they work with a group to reach an agreed outcome.

One of the important tenets of positive psychology is accepting that sometimes bad things happen. That definition of bad is as broad as it needs to be. It includes personal slights, significant events, workplace problems, global catastrophes, warring countries, relationship troubles and even mental illness. What’s not important is defining ‘bad’ in this context. What’s important is recognising that something is not right.

I’ve said before, and will say again that positive thinking in this type of instance is unhelpful. You can’t just positively think you’re way out of feeling like something is jarring with you. It’s important to recognise what that jarring is, address it and find a way to move forward once you have acted on making it better. And sometimes, that’s the piece we can get stuck with.

It happens in organisations too. A team that is not a team because they’re not working together, won’t be an effective team unless they accept one another. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t normed or stormed or whatever, or if they haven’t identified who’s completely finishing and who’s off planting. What matters is if they have a basic work ethic and trust with one another. If they can’t do those essentials with team members, then they won’t be able to positively work together.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that focusing on a positive outcome without the team being ready for it could do more harm than good. Why? Because they’ll only be cynical about the tasks or activities they’re being asked to carry out, and when they’re back in the workplace nothing will change for them. I remember facilitating a team event with a team who were asked to take part in a games based activity. It was meant to be a pat on the back for them and a recognition of their hard work. They did what they were asked to, and when they were back in the workplace, went back to all their negative behaviours. That happened because, with hindsight, we didn’t address what was the reality for them. It didn’t matter that they were being treated to a day out, they needed to address their team issues.

The clear outcome from dealing with bad things is that we know we can overcome them. Sometimes they seem insurmountable, but often it’s an attitudinal blockage as opposed to anything else.

Personally, too, we experience jarring of all sorts. In most cases we can brush things off, or accept them because of the personal situations we may be faced with. When that jarring, though, means we are stuck, that’s when we need to address it and find a way to act on it.

In this context, it can be hard to make that happen if we are unaware of what actually needs to be done. A coach, a trusted friend / other or a trained counsellor can help in these instances. When people enter into long term discussions focused on one issue or another, those are important moments to help progress happen. I believe it’s important to encourage positive behaviours where possible too. Supporting people to engage with positive actions can be really hard.

At work, this could be talking to your manager about your growing workload from them. It could be about finding ways to better manage your constant urgent and important actions. It could be finding better ways to manage your projects. It could be dealing with a difficult colleague. It could be going for that promotion.

It’s hard to do all of the above. That’s why us L&Ders exist. We facilitate. We make the hard easy. We make the hard better. We make the hard more manageable. We make the hard easier to understand.

Your takeaway? Accept that sometimes things jar. When you address it and find a way to act on it, you allow yourself the space to act positively for your own wellbeing.

When stigma and art collide

There we were, me and my boys, eating our food in the langar (free kitchen) in the gurdwara. A guy was blutacking some drawings to the wall. He came over to ask if we’d come and have a look at his artwork. He went round asking others too.

Above the pictures he put his name – Raj Singh Tattal, the Pen-Tacular-Artist. So I did what came natural and immediately Googled the guy, and came across this BBC Ouch article about him.

Raj is a 38 yr old man who was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome only two years ago. For all his time before he suffered an array of personal problems, forged a life for himself, and eventually succumbed to depression.

He realised that his obsessive behaviour was driven because he doesn’t like change. He would stay in his room for days on end with no desire to come out, not because there was something wrong with him, but because that was where he was happy.

He also reignited his interest and passion for art. It is far too much of a cliché to write about autistic spectrum behaviour and artisitic ability. In Raj’s case this was very much true. His artwork is nothing short of amazing as you’ll see below. All his work is done with charcoal and pencils.

He chose to show us his work on Sikhs and Sikh history, but on his website are a lot more variety showcasing his talent. There are pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch, fan art images of the likes of Spider-Man and drawings of people in despair – in his own words, not because he’s morbid but because he can relate to that.

I don’t know Raj, I only met him yesterday and he didn’t ask me to sponsor or promote his work.

Stories like this leave me in awe. I have no idea what Raj’s life will be like from here on out. He’s found a way to be at peace with his syndrome and how it affects his life. More than that, he’s found a way to find beauty in this personal adversity he faces. That’s more than most of us will achieve in our life.


Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji


Maharaja Duleep Singh


Punjabi bhangra dancers


Sikh soldiers


Mai Bhago


A Sikh warrior

Competency frameworks are bunkum

I mean, if you read no further, you would still understand the gist of this post.

In the interest of fairness, and for a bit of a debate, here’s all the good things about competency frameworks.

4. They help establish consistent behaviours for everyone to be measured against.

I’ve developed competency frameworks in my time. Spent months of my life that I’m never going to get back understanding corporate behaviours, job based behaviours, and how these might be translated into identifiable measurable things. Rolled out these frameworks to the workforce and spent time with managers helping them to understand how to use them.

You know who loved them? Technical experts. Why? Because it gave them a tool to be able to have those conversations which didn’t focus on a persons craft and were about their behaviours, or their attitude or their knowledge. It gave them a way to have good conversations because they didn’t know how to do that well.

You know who else loved them? All the suppliers and vendors who built their business on a competency framework that identifies x and helps improve performance by doing these sets of interventions. They’re a tangible product, some even have norm groups for some reason, and some are actually quite good.

But they’re the wrong solution to the problem.

The problem has always been how to help people at work talk well with each other. The biggest challenge and biggest opportunity for every team, for every manager, for every senior executive, for every comms team is how to communicate well.

No competency framework will fix that.

When you put a competency framework in place, you’re effectively restricting the clever people to conform to a set of agreed principles. You’re telling people they’re not allowed to think about their own behaviour at work because you’ve produced a manuscript of what that looks like. You’re reducing the whole of a persons being into a neat framework that everyone must and will conform to otherwise they’ll be in disciplinary procedures.

As L&Ders we need to be focused on improving dialogic skills. That’s how organisation development happens. That’s how engagement scores improve. That’s how retention happens. That’s how good recruitment happens. That’s how dealing with difficult behaviour happens. That’s how the world turns round.

L&D, Credibility and Knowledge

We have a tough old battle in L&D when it comes to establishing credibility. If you’re an internal practitioner, are you meant to be credible in L&D management, delivery, design, evaluation, or procurement? If you’re an external practitioner are you meant to be expert in certain topics, jack of all trades, or have had internal experience gone external? Mix into both of those, and what about skillsets around technology for learning, facilitation methodologies, creative thinking and other theories and models of personal development.

Sure there’s context wrapped around all of that too. What does the business need? Is the time right for it now? is L&D best placed to provide the solution? Does that person have the right skills?

For me, a constant challenge I place on myself is to be knowledgeable about a lot. I don’t want to be caught out with not knowing about certain parts of L&D because I didn’t bother taking the time to learn about them. There’s a lot to learn about the human condition, and it offers massive insight into human behaviour.

The fundamentals don’t change in the workplace. People are there to do a job. They want to be paid well. They want to feel good about what they do. They want to have some influence as to the outcome of what they’re doing. It’s the nuances that slide and slip between those factors that fascinate me.

But I have a belief, and one that I am very careful not to impose on others, that in order for me to have credibility I need to know what’s being said in this space. It means I come across information which resonates with me, that I am indifferent to, or that I have a firm view against.

Personally, I find doing this has made me fundamentally more liberal and inclusive in my thoughts and my practice. As I learn more about various models of human development, I learn that there is so very little that makes us different and yet so much that makes us unique. That’s truly humbling.

So we’re back at that challenge up above. What does it mean to be credible? Big question.

What is it that you think helps you be credible in your practice?