Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Beware razzle-dazzle mumbo-jumbo neuro-speak bearing promises of awesome

Image by Shutterstock 

An email hit my mailbox this morning promoting a leadership coaching program. The content looked good. I didn't know the presenters and the flyer said nothing of their backgrounds which immediately aroused my suspicions. 

Firstly I wondered if I was about to click on a virus-infested spam email. 

Secondly I noted the course was in St Louis Missouri and would have given me a total of 1.5 hours of PD so I decided I'd leave that for another time!

After fact checking the names on google, I clicked on the hyperlink to their website.

Richard (Rik) Nemanik has a doctorate in organisational psychology from St Louis University, has served on numerous boards and consulted since 1996. Robert (Bob) Grace PhD is an industrial and organisational psychologist consulting since 1990. If Fortune 500 companies trust them and that's what they've done, that's qualified and experienced enough for me to have invested 1.5 hours, notwithstanding the travel. 

Contrast that with "Mary", then financial controller for a large iconic sporting organisation - whose Executive I was coaching - who had negotiated an exit package as she had come to accept she wasn't performing well enough in the job and would be leaving three weeks later. I asked her in a coffee break if she had any plans. 

"Yeah, I exercise a lot. I'm a runner you see. I've read a few books. I'm going to be a life coach," she said brightly. 

I'm not going to weigh into the Adelaide Football Club saga to say that Collective Minds did any damage. I don't know. I can't determine if Adelaide under-performed this year relative to its potential because of a training camp eight months ago. I would ask Aboriginal colleagues if anything done may have been offensive to their culture long before I would comment on it myself as I would never speak for them. I do know as a consultant that would most certainly have been a lucrative job if it involved 25 facilitators and the fact that reportedly none of them were psychologists is hugely concerning. But unlike some Twitter followers, I don’t see how we can blame the AFL. I don't blame the players for fulfilling their contracts. I don't "blame" anyone for mal-intent. I understand more than ever before, football has become a game of one percenters. Everyone is looking for an edge but organisations do have a duty of care and at the risk of sounding like a pompous snob, any team development work requires decision makers to do their due diligence and to admit to not always knowing what they don't know. 

The truth is anyone can call themselves a life coach. A counsellor. A coach. A high performance coach. Even a therapist. I have colleagues in my network who are exceptional coaches with very impressive coaching accreditation, but they're not psychologists. And they get amazing results. I often recommend a counsellor friend to people who has decades of experience working with gifted children. Her first qualification was in occupational therapy and her specialisation grew from there. I know business coaches who have failed and succeeded many times over and do a good job as the "been there, done that" coach but they need to be careful they are not being depended on to provide support around psychosocial stresses while the person is setting up their business or gearing up to float on the stock exchange (the company, not them). Some former players coach top ten tennis players but they weren't top ten players. I think Peggy O'Neal is an outstanding CEO of Richmond FC and came here from the US 24 years ago so she knows and loves our game as well as most, but she's their most senior administrator and doesn't tout herself as a future senior football coach. Some former elite footballers have made lousy coaches... some even sacked themselves they were that bad. (Don't get me started). 

Just like psychometric tests, facilitators have to be fit for purpose. But anyone looking for an edge, suffering from "bright shiny object" syndrome, unduly dazzled by psycho-babble terms that you can't find in any credible books, neuro-speak because it sounds scientific and intellectual or those who've read a few books by Martin Seligman or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in positive psychology and are positive that means they can run good courses in it, are potentially ineffectual and "expensive" at best and irresponsible, even dangerous, at worst. 

One of the hidden and much less talked about negative impacts is the sense of guilt, shame and inadequacy people can be made to feel when the positive quotes they get online every day and the friends who tell them to "Just think positive!" are not only not working, but make them feel useless and inadequate. Or those who reach for drink, drugs or food to self-medicate because they can't just flip their thinking from awful to awesome, from catastrophic to calm.

I remember well 25 years ago driving to a country conference venue the night before a day I was scheduled to run for my bank. The group was already there and an evening "team game" had been planned (the blue/red game for those who know it). Remember, I wasn't even technically meant to be there yet and was standing in the corner winding down from a long drive and sipping on a wine. But after several teams lied to and attempted to cheat each other through this "light hearted and interactive after dinner team activity", the trainer looked at me in panic and said: "This has got way out of hand. You're a psychologist. You take over." He literally shoved me into the centre of the room to lead the debrief. 

Some questions to ask in making decisions about high risk, high value interventions:

1. What is our driving intent and the specific objectives we wish to achieve in embarking on this professional development for individuals or teams?

2. How will we choose between the myriad of options that might help us achieve that intent and objectives? What are our decision criteria? Are they valid

3. What do we know about the people who would design and facilitate the intervention? Qualifications/Experience? Clients? Testimonials (always verbal)

4. Do we have enough internal expertise to even understand the jargon, outcomes, activities, psychobabble they're spouting or are we being dazzled by mumbo jumbo? 

5. What are all the inherent risks against payoffs? Physical risks (e.g. prior to a footy season?) Psychological risks? Cultural risks including religious? Are we going to demand that someone kosher eats yabbies from a swamp or else they're not being a team player? Or allow the most senior person there to skip the safety demonstration because they were taking an important call and see them dangling out of their carabiner harness half way down the cliff face (true story!) 

6. What boundaries and opt-out policies do we have? To what extent could peer group pressure drive unsafe, attention-seeking behaviour or have people push beyond their limits with lingering effects? 

7. Is there a sound performance-based or resilience-based reason to do any activity or is it gimmicky i.e. not aligned with strategic intent? 

8. What if any concurrent stresses are people suffering (that we know about). Is it even reasonable to make such physical or emotional imposts on people? In a work situation is it even reasonable to ask people to stay away from home for five nights with young families or anxiety issues or anything else that's relevant to that 

9. Might someone we know and trust look at this plan with "fresh eyes" and be assertive enough to challenge certain ideas or activities? "Group think" is not our friend when playing for high stakes. 

10. Finally, do we have the skills to deal in real time with anyone who is triggered, distressed or behaves in unforeseen ways even if it was well thought out and the variable impossible to control with 100% certainty is people in high stress situations? Do we have the personnel with qualifications and experience to deal with anything that happens with skill and empathy whilst preserving dignity and maximising confidentiality. 

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