by Lucy Freedman
A strong premise in our work is that it is good
to have more choices in life, more conscious choice over our behavior
and results, more flexibility with which to approach situations.
In practicing "walking our talk," we request that our
clients allow participants to choose to come to our workshops.
Indeed, a key skill included in the Syntax learning processes
is how to say no.
Managers who bring us in, however, sometimes may
apply pressure to get the intended audience to come to our learning
experiences. Their intent may be to increase the group's future
choices, through sharing learning processes. A double bind emerges:
If we coerce them to come, they have no choice. If we can't get
people into the room, how do we invite them into making new choices?
And if the learning meets a business need, shouldn't we require
employees to attend. If we do, what effect does this have on the
session itself, the workplace climate, or the employees' motivation
As a manager wanting to bring soft skills into
my organization, I might meet a variety of responses. Favorable
responses will come from those who would buy into, benefit from,
and assist with the skill learning I desire. And-even with a thorough
needs assessment and buy-in process, some people a) will never
want to participate in formal learning processes, or b) are fed
up with meetings or classes, or c) don't see how they can squeeze
in more activity, or d) resent an authority trying to get them
to do anything, or e) don't see the value in what we offer, or
f) think that their participation is inappropriate for them.
These situations can degenerate from managers
"selling" to managers "telling." Employees
brought up in a school system where going to class is mandatory,
and who believe that keeping their jobs depends on learning, are
not likely to refuse. However, in our experience, rarely is overt
force used to get people into learning processes at work. Yet
subtle coercion that passes for persuasion (used to justify spending
resources on a program) can occur. And when it does, the results
can be counterproductive to learning. If people are told they
have a choice about participating, but also get the message that
they'd "better" attend, behaviors show up in the session
that evidence they're feeling pressured to be there.
This is one side of the "choice" issue:
the pressure management exerts for people to participate. The
other side of the issue is whether employees themselves will take
responsibility for their actions and experiences. It can be easier
to just go along rather than think for yourself and blame the
system or management for what isn't working in the organization.
There is virtually no work today that will not
require some learning or behavior change over time. When learning
ideas or behaviors is a condition of employment, part of the choice
to take the job is the choice to be willing to learn. It is a
reasonable expectation (and a benefit for most) that training
will occur. Our kind of learning requires self-examination and
a level of personal involvement that can incur resistance or discomfort.
When employees are already assuming that they don't have choice,
and may also be afraid of self-disclosure or change inherent in
a learning program, they're in a double bind. The manager is in
one also: how to avoid undermining the empowerment you're trying
to bring about?
We're in a bind as well: we want to respect people's
freedom to choose, and we also want to offer them new choices.
We wonder if the choice to not have more choices is a very viable
one today. Our business is helping people deal with change, and
we don't think anyone in our society has a choice about change.
We can, however, decide about how to respond to the pressures
The concern about getting participation in learning
processes reflects deeper concerns about self-responsibility and
management's ability to work with authentically participative
processes. Even if coercive management is the legacy we have come
from, we must leave it behind in order to foster effective 21st
century workplaces. We want to avoid the trap of thinking that
the learning we offer is more valuable than people's right to
We also want to assist the managers involved to
use the skills we offer so that they communicate with their people
to better understand their real needs and beliefs. Then they can
reach agreement about their mutual responsibilities for learning
and performance. If our interventions bring these conversations
about, that is useful in itself.
Pushing the issue of choice is beneficial for
most employees as well as managers. If it means taking more time
to "sell" a program, or to listen to prospective participants'
concerns, and to walk away from mandatory participation, as consultants
we can accept that.
If the goal is to combine humanization of work
with increased effectiveness in a team-based, fast-moving, knowledge-intensive
world, we must stay very aware of what we're asking of managers
and employees. Our message to participants is, yes, you do get
to say no. We have faith that you will want to learn, and that
the skills we offer are essential today, and we believe you'll
either come around on your own or find another way to get what
For managers facing this dilemma, or consultants
coaching them, here are ideas for honoring choice, building an
empowering work climate, and accomplishing goals for team learning:
Practice the skills of making effective requests and agreements,
If you foresee negative consequences for someone's non-participation,
explain them in a non-parental way. Ask the employee for his or
her opinion and to come up with other options for reaching the
If someone declines, protect them rather than using them
as a bad example.
Include them by sharing information about what is going
on in the session they are missing.
Be clear when hiring or giving assignments that learning
will be part of the job. If people push back, check their understanding
of the agreement and work out exceptions together.
Be aware of the attacks on the program (or consultant)
that may be disguised backlash against perceived coercion. Surface
possible resistance ahead of time, rather than sacrifice other
participants' valuable learning time to counterproductive struggles.
As long as we make exceptions to human dignity
in the form of freedom of choice for business exigencies, we are
losing more value than businesses can gain. As consultants, we
would rather lose the business than work with unwilling participants.
By producing results with and for those who freely choose to come,
we have the best choice of making new choices available to others.
People cannot say "yes" unless they can say "no."
People who know they have said yes are partners in the learning
process. Under these conditions, we can achieve extraordinary
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