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Don’t be more like me – learn from yourself!

Published on July 5th, 2022

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Marcus Buckingham, the consultant, speaker and researcher makes the point that adults don’t respond to training. In fact, they learn through a series of insights. Adults don’t learn when they are told how to do something; they gain new skills and knowledge as they realize for themselves different and better ways of solving the problems they face.  

This radically changes the way we approach developing cultural intelligence. Rather than presenting a definition of culture and then describing ways to understand other cultures for learners to transpose into their work, we need a new approach that provokes learners to make their own insights. 

‘Be more like me’

Marcus Buckingham explains it this way. When your manager – or a trainer – tells you how to do something, what they are in fact telling you is, ‘Be more like me.’ This makes a lot of sense if you consider the fundamentals of culture – that are cultural values are developed through the combined experiences and influences of our lives up until the present moment. We are all unique – and that means that how I solve a challenge will be different from the way you solve a challenge. Neither is wrong, they’re just different.  

We can illustrate this with a very simple domestic example. My wife is adventurous with food. She loves new ingredients and combinations. But she prefers to experiment by using different recipes, which she follows rigidly. I’m also adventurous with food, but I don’t have the patience to follow recipes – I read them, and then adapt the techniques or combinations to produce dishes.  

We both cook well but have the occasional failures; we both produce varied dishes that usually taste really good. But our approach to solving this problem is very different. Teaching me to use follow a recipe won’t work – I’m not a detailed person. Teaching my wife to be more experimental won’t work – she gains pleasure from the process. The ‘a-ha moments’ we have while cooking make the food great and mean that we have a unique and interesting diet – but we get to them by very different routes. 

One-size does NOT fit all

No-one knows you like you know yourself – no one can read your thoughts, can understand your motivations or reproduce your logical steps. And that’s why traditional training can’t meet your needs. It’s why diversity training is notoriously useless. If I write it clearly, it will become immediately obvious why diversity training cannot ever be successful. We treat people who have intense personal and painful experiences of discrimination in exactly the same way as those who have discriminated against them. And we expect both people to react positively to the training and take the same learning from it. 

One of the most effective inclusion adult learning sessions (NB – not ‘diversity training’ but ‘inclusion leaning’) I saw was conducted by Aishah Davies, currently Chief Product Office at Learnship. She didn’t spend time talking about the theories of bias or the definitions of race and ethnicity. She didn’t give the group any new information at all. She stood at the front and facilitated a discussion in how to deal with discrimination in the workplace. As a product specialist, she used a design-thinking approach to lead the group in brainstorming solutions.  

Each participant went away from the session with a very clear idea of what they needed to do next and because they had come up with the ideas and the actions, they owned them – they were solutions that they could realistically implement and take responsibility for, rather than abstract or unsuitable pre-determined adult learning points that had no relevance to their context. 

Changing our approach

If we want to make a difference with the money we invest in inclusion and diversity adult learning, we need to change our approach. We need to find ways to involve people with privilege and those who have experienced discrimination in constructive ways to co-create solutions that don’t exclude or are unrealistic.  

One of the most effective ways is to stop teaching, lecturing and telling. Those of us who are passionate about inclusion are always tempted to evangelize and drag others up to our levels of passion. This frightens some, turns others off and angers others. But more importantly, it increases the temptation to become a preacher. A three-hour training session turns into three hours of making 20 people feel guilty and then giving them a three-point list of things that they should do differently.

Coaching and facilitating

Let’s start by asking questions and listening to the answers. We don’t need trainers; we need coaches and facilitators. And yes, we’ll need a subject matter expert at times to ensure that we stay within the lines of the law and best practice, but the conversation should come from the participants as much as possible. 

It is a frightening change for trainers – giving the power to their learners; and it may be initially confusing for learners – after all we are so used to being told by others what to do. But it works. This approach delivers results that work. When learners have created the solutions, they have invested their energy in them, they are more likely to act on them – they become evangelists and activists. They want to share their ideas with others and get them involved. Co-creating solutions builds momentum outside the classroom – solutions start to infect real work and amazingly, the organization will become more inclusive. 

This approach works for pretty much any learning that doesn’t involve specific facts or knowledge transfer. For topics that are sensitive and difficult, where we are talking about the infinite complexity of human relationships, this approach is ideal.  

Telling stories to children

And if we look at why it works, we shouldn’t be surprised. When we ask learners questions, they instinctively talk about the things they know best – themselves and their situations. They tell stories. And we are conditioned to learn from stories from birth – our parents and teachers tell stories; they read to us and share life’s wisdom through those stories.  

The story about the boy who cried wolf doesn’t need the grown up to say, ‘if you deceive people several times, they won’t believe you when you tell the truth.’ Because the story allows the child to get to that understanding themself. So why, when helping adults learn, do we feel the need to mash the adult learning up into a pulp and feed them with a spoon? 

The role of facilitator changes from instructor to coach and helper – asking the challenging questions and coaxing the learners to reflect and draw the conclusions. They become the inspiration of ‘a-ha moments’ who make a real difference to the organizations and people they work with.  

The next time you’re in a training session, take note of how much the facilitator talks compared to the learners. If the facilitator does most of the talking, then you probably aren’t learning – you’re being told to ‘be more like me.’ 

WRITTEN BY MATTHEW MACLACHLAN

Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.


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