He sat in front of me, about eight feet from where I stood. For most of our class on workplace responsibilities, he had looked me in the eye, spoken up, and listened to those around him. But then, something changed. He folded his arms, frowned at the ceiling, shook his head left and right and pushed his body back in his chair. I didn’t need psychic gifts to know what that meant – something did not make sense to him or had triggered gut-level disagreement.
We were talking about a leader’s responsibility to get help from Human Resources or other representatives when a harassment claim has been made, even when the complainant requests that no action be taken. For many leaders, even today, this a challenging concept especially, as in this instance, if the person complaining is a male employee who is the recipient of sexual advances launched by a female co-worker.
As our discussion continued, almost everyone agreed that something had to be done, but not this one participant. I realized I was facing the toughest learning problem in working with adults on workplace ethical, legal and related issues. It’s not communicating information and “laying out the law.” That’s easy. In fact, if all that’s being done there’s no reason for a formal learning experience at all. Individuals can read standards or click through online presentations on their own. What effective learning must do is address conceptual resistance to critical principles. Often it’s this underlying disagreement which causes individuals not to apply what they have been taught concluding important lessons are impractical or against their own values or leadership instincts.
Finally, I asked the participant how he would handle this situation so he could openly discuss his opinion; here’s what he said.
“I’m not going to get help, and I’m not going to take this further. The guy in your hypothetical is a wimp if he can’t handle this. He ought to be able to handle a woman hitting on him. That’s all there is to say about it. Anything else makes no sense and is just going to cause us big trouble for no reason.”
His candid answer gave me the chance to ask him other questions to illustrate what could happen if he ignored his knowledge of a potential violation of organizational policy, and maybe the law, and to give him the opportunity to hear from his colleagues how they viewed the problem. They told him he had to act and why the organization and everyone involved could be harmed if he didn’t. Ultimately, he said he saw a side to the problem he hadn’t recognized. I suspect others may have felt the same way he did and have chosen to keep quiet. But they also had the chance to learn from his and the class’s comments.
As we increasingly adopt stunning new technologies that allow us to spread information broadly and get people to take tests and answer problems demonstrating they understand the key concepts, we need to keep in mind the necessity of addressing conceptual resistance. Ultimately, it’s not what participants are taught, it’s what they do which is most important. Whether our learning is delivered in person or online, it must reach the resistant in order to have a long-term impact. We should be considering how to make sure that all of our learning methods address conceptual resistance if we want our investment in education and talent to yield the best results which is to prevent, detect and correct problems before they lead to workplace disasters.