The Surprising Truth About Obvious Truths

I regularly talk and write about the need for a more evidence based approach to creating work that works better for more people. Less guff. There is too much faddishness and too many poorly thought out and poorly joined up initiatives. I’m therefore naturally grumpy when people attempt to sell solutions packaged with overclaims or rubbish evidence to back it up (‘Our product has used neuroscience to improve 107% of orgs we worked with’). I’m the one that says ‘prove it’ because not enough time is spent really reflecting on what is most likely to work. We rush to action.

That said… It’s worth making sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when taking this approach and I’ve seen some of that recently. In an effort to, rightfully, avoid overclaims it is easy to undermine legitimate claims in the same space. Or maybe more obvious truths just become collateral damage. I thought I’d share a couple of examples

1. Growth mindset

Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset (the need for a belief in possible improvement being central to performance, expanded on in Bounce by Matthew Syed) has come in for criticism. Some criticism centres around falsifiability (if you say something must not have been done properly if it doesn’t work then it’s hard to prove it doesn’t work) and some applicability (a lot of the work in this area has been done with children, not in work environments). And there is absolutely validity in the criticism. The challenge however is that it would be absolutely perverse to believe that a willingness to persevere and practice isn’t strongly linked to the ability to improve. If you remove the research and just think it through it must to some extent be true. It would be theoretically possible to fundamentally disagree with research (methodology or conclusions) and still hold that practice makes perfect (or at least better) and that people who give up aren’t likely to get better at things. It’s a surprisingly obvious truth.

2. Engagement

For years we’ve been told that better levels of engagement guarantee business success. Or are inescapably linked to business success. But the academic evidence for this is weak. Rob Briner provides an excellent overview here and was commissioned by Engage For Success to do an evidence review which concluded… There isn’t a lot of credible evidence for what are some quite often incredible claims (made by a host of providers). Yet having said that… if you ignore all of overclaims and pseudoscience and reduced the engagement case from something akin to organisational magic to something more mundane then… the claim is simply that ‘People who want your organisation to succeed are more likely to contribute than people who really don’t care’. That seems relatively uncontroversial. To what extent it makes a difference might be debatable, but not that a difference exists. The packaging is the problem, not the potential mundane but important truth.

Where people are making claims we should examine them, but we should also remember that our own experiences and those of others are a type of evidence. And a valid type of evidence. A little more joined up common sense and a little less ‘studies show organisations that do one thing succeed’ might get us a long way.

If you are interested in taking a more evidence based approach then I’d recommend


4 thoughts on “The Surprising Truth About Obvious Truths

  1. David
    Thank you for your Tweets and checking the blog.
    Before commenting, I should say that I don’t operate in the Human Resources (“HR”) space. I’m a lawyer who has done a bit of work with professional service firms on trying to improve, inter alia, team performance, communication and well-being.
    In picking up some of your themes in your blog post, perhaps I can say this:
    1. We’re all expressed differently. No two people are the same and to think otherwise is a fallacy.
    2. Work is work – some of it is engaging and fulfilling but mostly it’s brittle, uneventful and never likely to capture our soul.
    3. The epistemological basis for training options is doubtful. In short, there are no truths. If it were otherwise, and with the plethora of options that now prevail, the workplace would be sorted. By sorted, I mean all the ails of the workplace – e.g. employee engagement, well-being, performance management – would be resolved.
    4. However, all of this pales into insignificance when you ask yourself if there exists a separate, self-directing me. This is what Dr Robert Saltzman says in his book, The Ten Thousand Things (with which I agree): “The feeling of “myself” as an independent, deciding presence, located perhaps in the area just behind and between one’s eyes, takes something unitary—the totality of seeing, feeling, and thinking that really is “myself”— and creates a split between the “badly motivated myself” and the “better intentioned myself”—the one who is interested in enlightenment and hopes to attain it by working against the badly motivated one. But that splitting is a fiction, and so is the idea of a separate, detached myself who can observe, judge, and finally choose which motivations to follow and which to ignore. Everything you see, feel, and think is you. Any splitting is only conceptual, without factual existence. To put this plainly, there is no “little man” sitting in the middle of your skull who can decide anything. That homunculus is a ghost.” Of course, if that was accepted by employees or employers they might decide to do nothing but then again, they might decide to carry on as they are. I can’t possibly know. But in HR circles, if I’ve any observation, it’s to suggest that we invite the question: “Who are you?” Not, I mean, a bushel of labels, skills and capabilities but who are you at the deepest, most fundamental level.
    5. I do agree with you that there’s too much hyperbole and untested rhetoric but it does seem that the bigger the name the more likely it that their regime snuffs out other well-meaning researchers.
    Sorry, that’s a bit long but, hopefully, I can be allowed a little latitude with my comment.
    Best wishes


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