Reaching The Learning Resistant

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.

  • Rob Jones says:

    Unfortunately for that student, his frankness and openness will cost him in the long run. He’s now ‘a marked man’ in the organization. (He probably was already, truthfully, because of his apparent openness and willingness to share his thinking.) Your suspicion “others may have felt the same way he did and have chosen to keep quiet” is an excellent analysis of the situation, and shows an experience level of a genuine pro instructor. Though the fate of that particular student was sealed by the end of that class, the learning moment for everyone in the room centered on the gambler’s rule, ‘know when to hold them.’ That employee opened his mind and his mouth, shared his thinking, and gave everyone a chance to mold his thinking. That is a true learner. The learning resistant employees were those who either kept quiet while in disagreement with the policy, or those who purported to ‘help’ the open employee to see things a new way, but for self serving purposes, aka brownie points. The poor guy likely caved, not because he agreed, but to avoid risking the accusation of not being a team player…deadly!
    The instructor is often at a real disadvantage compared to the attendees, who often know each other intimately. Its difficult to tell the difference between silent disagreement and self-serving verbal agreement. But either way, silent or verbal, the learning resistant come in a variety of flavors.

  • Steve Paskoff says:

    Rob –thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’ve always appreciated the openly learning resistant participant –it takes courage to take a contrary position to what the instructor and others present [no matter how many silently agree]. And, ultimately it leads to a learning opportunity for everyone. I think part of the instructor’s job is to encourage those who disagree to speak up. When they do, it’s vital to listen to what they say and explore how their views will play out. In fact, that’s a model that leaders should, in my view, generally follow. During the discussion, it’s also important to thank them publicly for their contribution. The instructor needs to avoid the same communication signals that the learning resistant student I referred to demonstrated in the first paragraph!

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