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Getting To "NO"
Practicing What We Preach in Learning Programs

by Lucy Freedman

A strong premise in our work is that it is good to have more choices in life, more conscious choice over our behavior and results, more flexibility with which to approach situations. In practicing "walking our talk," we request that our clients allow participants to choose to come to our workshops. Indeed, a key skill included in the Syntax learning processes is how to say no.

Managers who bring us in, however, sometimes may apply pressure to get the intended audience to come to our learning experiences. Their intent may be to increase the group's future choices, through sharing learning processes. A double bind emerges: If we coerce them to come, they have no choice. If we can't get people into the room, how do we invite them into making new choices? And if the learning meets a business need, shouldn't we require employees to attend. If we do, what effect does this have on the session itself, the workplace climate, or the employees' motivation and dignity?

As a manager wanting to bring soft skills into my organization, I might meet a variety of responses. Favorable responses will come from those who would buy into, benefit from, and assist with the skill learning I desire. And-even with a thorough needs assessment and buy-in process, some people a) will never want to participate in formal learning processes, or b) are fed up with meetings or classes, or c) don't see how they can squeeze in more activity, or d) resent an authority trying to get them to do anything, or e) don't see the value in what we offer, or f) think that their participation is inappropriate for them.

These situations can degenerate from managers "selling" to managers "telling." Employees brought up in a school system where going to class is mandatory, and who believe that keeping their jobs depends on learning, are not likely to refuse. However, in our experience, rarely is overt force used to get people into learning processes at work. Yet subtle coercion that passes for persuasion (used to justify spending resources on a program) can occur. And when it does, the results can be counterproductive to learning. If people are told they have a choice about participating, but also get the message that they'd "better" attend, behaviors show up in the session that evidence they're feeling pressured to be there.

This is one side of the "choice" issue: the pressure management exerts for people to participate. The other side of the issue is whether employees themselves will take responsibility for their actions and experiences. It can be easier to just go along rather than think for yourself and blame the system or management for what isn't working in the organization.

There is virtually no work today that will not require some learning or behavior change over time. When learning ideas or behaviors is a condition of employment, part of the choice to take the job is the choice to be willing to learn. It is a reasonable expectation (and a benefit for most) that training will occur. Our kind of learning requires self-examination and a level of personal involvement that can incur resistance or discomfort. When employees are already assuming that they don't have choice, and may also be afraid of self-disclosure or change inherent in a learning program, they're in a double bind. The manager is in one also: how to avoid undermining the empowerment you're trying to bring about?

We're in a bind as well: we want to respect people's freedom to choose, and we also want to offer them new choices. We wonder if the choice to not have more choices is a very viable one today. Our business is helping people deal with change, and we don't think anyone in our society has a choice about change. We can, however, decide about how to respond to the pressures to change.

The concern about getting participation in learning processes reflects deeper concerns about self-responsibility and management's ability to work with authentically participative processes. Even if coercive management is the legacy we have come from, we must leave it behind in order to foster effective 21st century workplaces. We want to avoid the trap of thinking that the learning we offer is more valuable than people's right to choice.

We also want to assist the managers involved to use the skills we offer so that they communicate with their people to better understand their real needs and beliefs. Then they can reach agreement about their mutual responsibilities for learning and performance. If our interventions bring these conversations about, that is useful in itself.

Pushing the issue of choice is beneficial for most employees as well as managers. If it means taking more time to "sell" a program, or to listen to prospective participants' concerns, and to walk away from mandatory participation, as consultants we can accept that.

If the goal is to combine humanization of work with increased effectiveness in a team-based, fast-moving, knowledge-intensive world, we must stay very aware of what we're asking of managers and employees. Our message to participants is, yes, you do get to say no. We have faith that you will want to learn, and that the skills we offer are essential today, and we believe you'll either come around on your own or find another way to get what you need.

For managers facing this dilemma, or consultants coaching them, here are ideas for honoring choice, building an empowering work climate, and accomplishing goals for team learning:
• Practice the skills of making effective requests and agreements,
• If you foresee negative consequences for someone's non-participation, explain them in a non-parental way. Ask the employee for his or her opinion and to come up with other options for reaching the goal.
• If someone declines, protect them rather than using them as a bad example.
• Include them by sharing information about what is going on in the session they are missing.
• Be clear when hiring or giving assignments that learning will be part of the job. If people push back, check their understanding of the agreement and work out exceptions together.
• Be aware of the attacks on the program (or consultant) that may be disguised backlash against perceived coercion. Surface possible resistance ahead of time, rather than sacrifice other participants' valuable learning time to counterproductive struggles.

As long as we make exceptions to human dignity in the form of freedom of choice for business exigencies, we are losing more value than businesses can gain. As consultants, we would rather lose the business than work with unwilling participants. By producing results with and for those who freely choose to come, we have the best choice of making new choices available to others. People cannot say "yes" unless they can say "no." People who know they have said yes are partners in the learning process. Under these conditions, we can achieve extraordinary results.
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