Emotion, at work

The human condition is a weird and wonderful thing. A brain with some of the most complex connections, chemicals, energies and all sorts helping our body function in ways which are perfectly logical when you understand the human system, and at the same time when something unusual happens it can discombobulate us totally and utterly. In most of what we do, we often take for granted that most of us are able bodied, able minded, and able just generally. We get on and do the things we want to do and need to do.

It’s very rare we look to understand our emotional health. We’ll take the time to understand physical health, some of us may need to take care of our mental health, most of us will try and manage our financial health, and many of us just remain oblivious to our emotional health. It’s just not something we discuss that well.

I don’t believe there’s a male/female thing at play. It’s down to several things at play:

What language do we use?

How do we help others understand that we’re experiencing something emotional and that it needs to be expressed and articulated? How do we learn the language of emotions to create better relationships? How do we learn how to share our emotional health so that others can better understand our thinking and frame of mind? What happens when we try to express and articulate our emotions but it comes out in unintended ways that have a negative effect and affect? How do we manage our emotional health when we feel that everything is either going well, is plodding along, or is falling down all around us?

Who do we discuss emotions with?

Most people might think they can talk to their partners about such things. That’s a sensible assumption, but one that needs care. Does your partner recognise your emotional health and how it can change? When it changes, do they know what that means and how to either support you or experience it with you? What about our friends? Siblings? Work colleagues? What do those different groups of people understand about our emotional health? Are you allowed to discuss it with them? What do they do that either supports you or allows them to experience it with you?

How acceptable is it to express emotion at work?

The workplace tends to be a place that people traditionally think of where the environment is such that you have to be professional and this equates to leaving your emotions at the entrance. Except, we are none of us able to do that. Our emotions are a fundamental part of our being. They can make us do rational and irrational things and often without us having any control over them.

Does your manager know what your emotional health is like? What about your work colleagues? What would happen if you were to share your emotional state? How might people respond to you? What kind of working environment might that create? Would you feel supported? Vulnerable? Exposed? Trusted? Appreciated?

What are emotions actually for?

Many of us know and understand that our emotions are part of what makes us human, and our expression of them is just another unique factor of being human. But do we understand what they’re actually for? I mean, everything about the human condition serves a purpose, so what purpose do our emotions serve us? Would it surprise you to learn that our emotions serve multiple purposes? Ranging from self-protection to relationship building to preparing the body for action to creating connections with others – our emotions are a fundamental essence of being human. Yet, most of us just give them a cursory acknowledgement of existence.

I personally find the topic incredibly fascinating. The insights that we’ve gained through empirical research, investigation and philosophy helps us understand so much more about how we can understand our emotions better, understand how to experience them, understand how to articulate them and understand how to work with our emotions and not control them. There’s an event on Thursday 9th June (2016)  which is going to help explore this topic, and I highly recommend it. (I don’t get a kickback for promoting it, just bonus universe points.)

L&D, Rhetoric and Perpetuating Myths

This post will be challenging to read. It will be a direct challenge to those in the profession who I respect and think are doing important work in advancing L&D. If you read this and think I’m referencing you and your mindset and attitude, then yes I probably am.

The L&D vanguard leading the light for the revolution of how people are learning at work at peddling dangerous myths that we need to carefully critically appraise. I’m part of that vanguard. I’m peddling those same myths and I’m guilty as charged.

Except I’ve not built my business model on whether or not people will buy what I have to offer on the fear of what is happening in the world of knowledge consumption, and I’m not invested in towing that particular party line.

I repeat, this is directly offensive to those who do make a business of this. They earn an honest living from doing so and are doing important work in this area to progress the understanding of workplace learning in a way we haven’t been privy to before.

Every single person who is claiming they are leading organisations where models such as 70:20:10, informal learning processes, social learning and the such like are telling you such a bag of lies I don’t even know where to begin.

Firstly, most of the people in this space are talking about nothing more than IT training. They’re most certainly not talking about coaching skills, leadership development, negotiation training, or any other high level skill set. There might be some organisations doing this and claiming they are. They might even be part of the big chip organisations many of us would be lead to believe have fully embraced these types of approaches.

But they haven’t. A population in their organisation have, and that’s not the same as everyone. It’s not having the kind of business impact many are claiming it does because most departments aren’t measuring that kind of activity. One group embracing the approach is not the same as everyone in the Finance function or Procurement team or A N Other being part of this type of organisational learning activity.

Indeed, most organisations where there isn’t an L&D or HR function couldn’t even explain how they do any of this activity, because they’re simply not doing it. They’re getting on with the day job. And before the vanguard start claiming that the ’70’ of the 70:20:10 is the day job – yes I understand that, and it’s all being done on the job – except the people doing the job aren’t setting themselves personal learning tasks and embarking on personal and professional learning journeys. They’re just getting on with the job they’re paid for and at best doing a good job of it because of the formal learning processes they’re taking advantage of.

There’s more, though. The rhetoric around a lot of what the vanguard write about is that if you’re not supporting these activities as an L&Der then you’re failing your organisation. Which is in part true, except there are plenty of organisations and L&Ders who haven’t got the first clue about what any of this is trying to promote or talk about. So, no, not all big badass companies are doing this. Some companies are – those who are enlightened enough to realise there are better ways to support workplace learning and support personal and professional development at work. One team or a number of teams in an organisation does not equal endemic practice.

Hold on, there’s more too. In all likelihood, it’s those people who have a propensity towards using social tools and sharing their learning openly who are receptive to this type of learning at work. That’s not everyone, and it’s definitely not every L&Der. L&D is representative of the population at large in that there are just as many against the use of technology to support learning as there are business leaders who are against the use of technology to modernise workplace practice. The teams or the people likely to adopt this type of approach are those who want to modernise their working practice anyway.

I haven’t finished yet, there’s even more. The vanguard are very clear on this too. EVERYONE IS AT IT. Except they are patently not. Some are, sure. But there are many more who need support and guidance on how to make this stuff work and how to make it happen.

Let me be clear, I believe that workplace learning is fundamentally changing. Technology as an enabler of learning has never been better, and we’re only just seeing how the technology can be used as such. The vanguard are trying to run their business off a culture of fear in some parts where they’re claiming that there is this enigma of learning is taking place that is hard to quantify and hard to qualify but it’s out there because their surveys say so.

Let’s be careful about what we choose to believe. And to the vanguard I challenge every one of you to be far more responsible about the rhetoric that is perpetuated and the impact on your fellow L&Ders.

The morality question

Back in 2000, I passed my undergraduate degree. It was a good moment. I’ve written before that throughout my education I was never a student who got high marks. I was often the student who got the ‘C’ grade. My degree class was ‘2:2’ which means it was the equivalent of a ‘C’ grade for degrees. In the rankings of degree classifications it came:

  • 1st – first class honours
  • 2:1 – second class honours, upper division
  • 2:2 – second class honours, lower division
  • 3rd – third class honours
  • Ordinary degree – pass
  • Fail

I remember receiving my degree certificate, and it stated I had received the degree class ‘2:1’ – second class honours, upper division. Now, to place this in some context, at that time, getting a decent job with a good salary in a good company kind of meant you had to have a 2:1 degree. It was completely to my advantage that my degree certificate stated what it did.

Except, I couldn’t personally accept it. Morally, it was the wrong thing to accept. So I got in touch with my tutor and explained what I had received and that I wanted it amended to reflect my actual achievement. To say the least, he was surprised at this. He passed me on to the relevant team at the university and I got in touch with them about the same. Again they were surprised – most students got in touch with them because they were contesting their results and had managed to get a higher class degree, and here was me asking for it to be reduced. Madness!

At that stage in my life – pre-work, I was a deeply moral person. There was a right and wrong to most things. This, for me, clearly fell in the wrong camp which needed to be righted. As I entered the corporate workforce a few years later, I learned that my definition of my morals needed to be challenged and developed. Many matters were simply not right and wrong as I once thought. All shades of grey became apparent and as much as I was learning about corporate existence, I was learning about moral development too.

I learned that in the workplace, our morals can be pulled in all sorts of directions. The employment contract can be so strong, for many people, that it overrides your normal tolerance for what you would do. Milgram, in his famous experiment about electric shocks, proved this back in the 1960s. When faced with a figure of authority, people will defer their own judgement to that of the other person, because that’s what they believe is expected of them.

In recent years we’ve seen various high profile events happen where the morality of individuals and leaders has come into question as well as the culture of organisations and the impact of their actions on society at large. One of the clear pieces of insight that most commentators have talked about is the moral character – or lack of.

And you have companies like Best Companies (organisers of the Times 100 Best Companies list) who highlight and report on the importance of moral development of leaders and the impact this has on engagement in organisations.

It’s all actually quite complex stuff. If a leader says the right things, but behaves in ways which are morally questionable, who is able to stand up to them? How do we cultivate a culture in organisations where acting morally is rewarded and recognised for doing so? If you’re faced with a decision which may be morally corrupt questionable, how do you decide which course of action to take? If there is one individual who is behaving in ways which are morally wrong but they deliver results, who is responsible for addressing this type of performance?

I don’t think there are easy answers to this stuff. It’s why governing bodies / monitoring agencies / regulatory bodies and the such like face such challenges. The route many go down is by defining a set of standards which all companies/organisations should be measured/evaluated against. Except, people find ways around things like this. It’s why organisations and companies who create values for their companies have a hard time enforcing them. They’re often understood by a select group of people and often not articulated well enough for everyone to be in agreement with or abide by.

And I don’t think it’s just the responsibility of HR/L&D/OD types to lead on this stuff. This group of people are no more moral than any other group, and there should be no expectation that they should be. Morality is a human question. Developing moral capacity and capability is an organisational issue and not one that one person or department can claim authority about.

Just things to think about.

On Skiing

I lose myself as I glide along the snow. I’m warm from being wrapped up, aware of the cold as it presses against my skin. There’s just the snow. The white of it so pure and such a sight. The mountains in view present such majesty and awe. And at once I become conscious that I need to turn and my knees jerk.

Skiing, for me, rejuvenates me through, deeply. It touches parts of my being that I don’t know I need to be caressed. In another world I call this my third place – where I can just be, free from anything and everything. All that I need to think on is how to get down the slope.

It is such an alien affair. How did humans devise such an activity? To put these long flat sticks on these heavy boots and ski down a mountain of varying degrees of difficulty. And it’s a sport. And it’s a thriving sporting activity. And people of all ability go back year on year. Some even stay at resorts for the season just so they can ski regularly. Others ski for just an afternoon. Most spend a week. All are there to find out what it’s all about.

And the engineering! They create these cable cars that are quite frankly the scariest forms of transport I’ve ever travelled in yet are the most trustworthy of things you could travel in.


Such a mind developed the intricate mechanisms that won’t fail and will be safe. How you even conceive of an idea like this I don’t even know. And it’s not just cable cars.  There are gondolas, chair lifts and all sorts of other ways to get up a mountain only to ski back down it again. Sure, bridges are pretty cool, but to build a cable car that is at the top of a mountain so sturdy that it can operate in sub zero temperatures?  That’s kind of just amazing.

But those views. By God those views.



As you go higher up the mountain and the air becomes crisp and the sky so clear all you can do is bask, that’s when you believe this could be somewhere the gods choose to live. The gentle breeze that lofts an air of snow and gently moves it along the piste. The distance you can just gaze and get lost. And wonder, just why are people fighting?

I’d often be on the chair lift and just marvel. Oh the fortune of being able to do that. And of course get a pic taken of what it’s about.


And I’d look down the slope and think, come on then, let’s do this thing.


Understanding Evidence Based Management better

I’ve been hearing and reading a fair amount about this concept of evidence based practise for a while now. You are most likely familiar with the idea when it comes to medicine or government policy. Most medicine and policy decisions are informed by the evidence base. If a particular medicine proves to treat certain illnesses in clinical trials then it’s more than likely going to be made available to the public en masse. You can take that same approach and apply it to behavioural science and even further with areas like HR.

One of the areas of L&D where we’ve seen evidence based practise used effectively is in the study of ‘learning styles’ and their use in training / education design. What the research has proven time and again is that using learning styles as a design methodology for training / education is flawed at best and completely ineffective as a delivery methodology. Which is great because it forces us as L&Ders to really ensure we understand human  learning processes and design learning interventions that are in line with natural processes rather than discredited and useless theories.

Another area where we can see evidence based practise in, er, practise is online retail and online learning environments. Research is able to inform with amazing clarity and accuracy which forms of design / UX and UI are effective and which are not.

So step in the applicability of evidence based practise to the wider world of HR / L&D and we start to understand that we could use this practise to inform interventions that are actually effective.

From what I’ve understood about Evidence Based Management so far is that it relies on research and evidence to inform exactly what is effective and what is not. Right, that makes complete sense to me. So, for example, we are able to know that NLP, MBTI, learning styles, employee engagement initiatives, learning and development all have weak evidence bases. Now, before my fellow L&Ders get all defensive about this, it is well worth you taking your time to understand why they have a weak evidence base.

What this means in the broader Evidence Based Management piece is if Consultant A suggests Intervention A, then they should be doing so with a decent evidence base that Intervention A will work. Now there’s a whole piece there about the education of HR / L&D professionals better understanding what to look and ask for when it comes to that evidence base. But I need to keep this moving along.

So far, I’m in agreement with the approach, what it can inform us, and what that means for the interventions we choose to implement.

Where I come unstuck is when Evidence Based Management approach can’t provide an answer for a solution that is effective. What do I mean? I mean this:

Company A what’s to implement Intervention A, but the evidence base for it is either weak or non-existent.  They learn that Company B had a similar issue, and used Intervention B which had a positive organisational impact. Company A decide to go for using Intervention B. However, and this is a big however, Intervention B could only have worked for Company B because the culture and many other factors were aligned for that intervention to have worked. The research and evidence base may suggest it is effective, but that’s because the context of Company B helped make it work.

No two companies are the same. I know that Evidence Based Management doesn’t suggest blindly following examples and blindly following best practise solutions. What it doesn’t help with, though, is in offering solutions that can be effective.

Taking this further, what I’ve seen so far is Evidence Based Management help us understand what doesn’t work. That is really helpful and like I said, forces us as professionals and practitioners to examine what we’re doing and why. What I haven’t seen with this approach, yet, are models and theories that are effective that can work independent of culture and other organisational factors. The promise of Evidence Based Management is that it can potentially offer solutions that akin to medicinal solutions. I’m yet to see that in evidence.

Behind the scenes

I’ve been talking with a lot of different people lately. One of the things that I’ve been reflecting on is what we present to the world, and what’s going on behind the scenes to make that presentation work.

The world of social media means that we only ever see a snippet of someone’s life. I know some very open people who use their Twitter accounts to openly share a lot of what they experience. They do this as a way of being able to make sense of what they experience. It also opens them up to comments and opinions from people who may have good intentions, but communicate poorly. Others may have bad intentions and communicate poorly.

I know others who use their social networks to share their thinking about a range of topics. ‘Thinking out loud’ in these ways helps others to know that these people are trying to offer an opinion about the world they live in, and by virtue of it being open and social, inviting comment about the same.

I know many people who use social networks to share about the work they’re involved in. We tend not to see work in progress, and we tend to see end products. Where we see work in progress, there are those who appreciate the honesty, and the sharing attitude. It helps them identify that there is a development process, and there is value in sharing stages of work. Where we see finished products, what we can be blind to is the amount of work that was involved. In the open market place, anyone can offer an opinion, and there is a resilience we need to be open to that.

And there are variety of online communities that people feel connected to and invested in. I’m part of many, and they all offer me different things.

In all of that, we see only what is available to be seen.

What we don’t see is the angst, the hard work, the hours toiled, the rejected proposals, the lost time, the mixed emotions, the strained relationships, the personal hardships, the financial burdens, the care taken, the ambition driving, the desire for the work, and so much more.

And I wonder, how many of us are willing to read or know those things?

I have many private conversations with people on different platforms and in different ways, and I wonder, how acceptable would it be to share those discussions openly? When we discuss things behind the scenes, are we aware of the influence those discussions have to what we present openly?

It’s great to be open and sharing, but what happens when people want to share and be open about the hard times, the tough times, and the downright shit times?

Experience tells us, that when we do share these times, people can be generous with their time, with their compassion, and with their understanding. Not all people, but those who want to, will. I’ve read pieces about mental health issues, sexual abuse, racial abuse, gendered stereotyping, parental harm, and so many more. And every time I read them I want to reach out and provide that person with love, care and heart. They’ve shared something in an open way, and I can’t help but see the human side of what’s happening in the world.

Yet, at work, we’re not openly acceptant of these things. We may say we are, but we’re really not. If you work in a team, do they all want to hear about your woes, trials and tribulations? They might want to, if they feel that the person can be heard well and find support in their colleagues. They probably won’t want to if they feel that displaying your emotions at work is frowned on and detrimental to the work environment.

We all present a sheen. We allow specific things about ourselves to be seen, and are very particular about what happens behind the scenes.

How do we build the capacity for people to feel that they can share in ways that are meaningful and don’t alienate? How we do help people build resilience so that when they experience things behind the scenes, they are taking care of themselves? How do we create a stronger sense of support and compassion where the focus isn’t on advising someone what to do, but allowing them to be heard.

What’s happening behind the scenes for you?

Learning How to Learn

I recently chaired a talk at Learning Technologies conference with Barbara Oakley on the topic of ‘Learning How to Learn’. Barbara runs one of the most popular MOOCs around on the same topic. Never done a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) before? Then this one is probably the one to get you started.

The first thing that is immediately apparent about this talk was how endearing Barbara is. Her story of her personal journey of learning through both formal means, work means and ultimately in her role as a professor of engineering is insightful and encouraging. Hers is the story that helps us to realise that we can use learning principles to learn anything we set our mind to.

She first of all helped us to understand that when it comes to the process of learning, we have a ‘focused’ mode and a ‘diffuse’ mode. In the focused mode, we try to apply tried and tested methods of application to help us achieve a goal. However, the reality is that our brains tend to operate in a much more erratic fashion when working on a problem or task and it fires in all sorts of directions before settling on an answer. She used the example of a pinball machine to illustrate how the diffuse mode of thinking works.

What this helps us to realise is that our brains don’t operate in the logical and structured fashion we think they work in. Instead, our brains are full of activity, and when given a problem to work on, will expend energy to focus on that task, but is quite likely to draw on lots information to help us reach there. This doesn’t mean we get distracted, it just means that most of our problems and tasks we need to do will require us to draw on previous experience. When we have experienced a situation over and again, that pathway becomes easier to navigate until it is more logical and straightforward than initially encountered.

Barbara usefully shared a technique for time management called the Pomodoro technique. This technique essentially says focus intently for 25 mins, and then allow yourself about 5 mins of ‘play’ time where you purposefully shift your focus away from the task at hand. What this does is to allow the brain to enter both focused and diffuse modes of thinking in a balanced sustainable fashion. It is also supportive of ensuring we don’t cause ourselves burnout and encourages more effective working patterns.

In the delivery of formal learning solutions I think this insight is highly relevant. You can engage a group with high level activity for up to a period of 25 mins, and then need to schedule in some alternative activity which purposefully involves them doing a different task. By doing this we can design sessions to be highly engaging, relevant and content rich, with a healthy mix of activity, ‘play’ and fun.

It was fascinating to learn the way the brain needs sleep in order to grow and learn new things. When we learn something new, our brain starts to create new synapses to do something with the information we’re taking in. When we go to sleep, our brain keeps on doing something with that information, and we know this happens because the next day, after sleep, the neuron has grown. The more we continue to revisit the content we were learning about, and having normal sleep patterns means we have better chance of holding that information in our long term memory and make it more accessible. This accessibility is also linked to the application of that knowledge. By trying to apply the knowledge to a variety of situations, we allow those connections to broaden and branch to other connections making that content stronger and our experience of it stronger too.

Again, when thinking about learning solution design, what this starts to tell us is that a one day / five day training course / e-learning just isn’t enough to impart knowledge. It’s a start, and that’s all it can be. Instead we need to design in to the learning process multiple ways in which the knowledge can not only be accessed but also how it can be applied. Currently, we don’t tend to design learning solutions in such ways – although arguably this is part of the thinking involved with solutions such as social and peer based learning solution design and implementation.

One unexpectedly useful insight was about the use of analogies and storied. When we use a well thought out analogy or story to help illustrate a point, it’s not ‘dumbing down’ the content. In fact, we’re using the same part of the brain to understand the content that the analogy is attempting to explain. The use of the analogy/story is fundamental in demonstrating that we are capable of understanding complex topics with relative ease. I loved this for it’s ease of access to learning solution design.

The last main piece that Barbara covered was about ‘chunking’ of information. We have a pretty sophisticated capability to hold information, and one technique which is supportive of this is to ‘chunk’ information together. It used to be taught that we could hold approximately 7 pieces of information in short term memory with quick recall, but that’s been updated to about 5 pieces. What this means is that when we are trying to learn new information, we need to access it in ways which we can chunk it into meaningful pieces that allow for quick and easy to recall. What we also need to be mindful of is that to transfer this learning to working memory, we need to keep re-visiting it.

In the design of learning solutions, this also presents some great insight for us to act on. Information should be no more than 5 pieces chunked together. That doesn’t mean heavy pieces of text either, as it needs to be accessible to the brain. If it’s a heavy piece, then it needs to be broken down. This isn’t because some adults are less smart than others, this is because it’s a better way to support the natural learning process of the brain.

Barbara ended the session with two key pieces of insight for educators / trainers / L&D:

Your job is NOT to show off how much you know.

It is to make the ideas simple, clear and memorable.

And if all this tickled your fancy, watch Barbara talk about the above in her TedX talk here: