Psychology and L&D

In L&D, we’re often faced with having to deliver pieces of content which are based on some understanding of the human condition. The content we get asked to deliver ranges from how to give feedback well, to how to deliver a presentation, to how to negotiate better, build positive relationships, assertiveness, coaching, etc. And we’re often squeezed with the time we’re asked to do these things in too. I re-read this piece from Jo Stephenson this week about the learnings we can take from psychology and how they apply to L&D.

We have to play at being faux-psychologists, and at best (for most L&D types) armchair psychologists. Forget that actual psychologists train for years, develop honed practise, really understand the human psyche and its manifestations, and the many different techniques it takes to support and enable a person to be better.

I studied psychology. It’s been nearly 18 years since I graduated. The world of psychology in that time has moved on leaps and bounds. Much of it has passed me by completely. I can only pay attention to those areas where I have an interest. And for readers of this blog, you’ll know that’s the realm of positive psychology and emotional intelligence. I couldn’t tell you anything substantial about advances in cognitive psychology, therapeutic psychology, educational psychology, counselling psychology, or even my professed expertise in occupational psychology.

Of course, we’re all capable of insight and reflection on the human condition. Many people blog and write about the topics as related to any number of fields. But as L&Ders, it feels to me that there can be a lack of rigour in our thinking and in our practise when it comes to delivering content which is meant to be against sound psychological principles. I mean we’re still dealing with people talking about the ‘percentages of body language’. And L&D types who won’t let go of designing learning solutions or delivering learning solutions with ‘Learning Styles’ even though it’s been proven time and again to be completely ineffectual to the learning process.

There are modern insights and learnings, and not just from psychology, but many other avenues of thinking and insight. And there are questions, big questions that most L&D types aren’t considering – even though we should. AI/machine learning has the ability to fundamentally change the way we live, what does this mean for the learning process, and the learning solutions we think we have to provide? Global and national politics are challenging the established norms we’ve been accustomed to for the last 20 odd years. How will that change the motivation for learning that people come with? There continue to be challenges with inclusion, diversity and acceptance of difference in society. How will that impact on the biases and prejudices we’re having to deal with when we interact with people and help them learn new skills?

There are no easy answers to these questions – and there shouldn’t be. But these questions will inform about behaviour, attitudes and knowledge that we as L&Ders have to understand and respect.

Importantly, we can’t just develop quickfire bites of content that we think will be valuable to our learners. People need time to assimilate and reflect and develop their insight. As L&Ders we can’t (and shouldn’t) think that by throwing a simple solution at our learners that we’re suddenly helping them be better people or create better learning solutions for themselves. They’re often dealing with quite specific things. Generic models, common theories and commonly used content is quite often hoping that the jelly will stick to the wall. If we’re going to deliver insights from respective fields (not just psychology) let’s develop better rigour and insight ourselves so that we do justice to both the content and give our learners the respect of their time and will to learn something of value.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

5 thoughts on “Psychology and L&D”

  1. Hi Sukh. I share some of your concerns. As someone who does make an effort to keep up, I can assure you that science is not necessarily the antidote to dogma. (A view I reflected here: I think that as practitioners we are in an excellent position to challenge orthodox approaches. The difficulty with science is that it is far better at answering questions than asking the right questions – a bit like a torch, it is only effective if we point it in the right direction. Albert Einstein was a patent clerk – it was many years before his ideas were scientifically tested. So I think the problem is not that we don’t keep up with developments, but that we don’t stop to challenge received wisdom.

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