How do you train dignity?

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Written by Vicky Roberts on 21 August 2014 in Features

Vicky Roberts explains how to create a training programme to bring about behaviour change

Dignity at work is a thorny issue and is one of the toughest challenges for L&D professionals as it’s one of the hardest topics on which to create a training programme. Unlike other training programmes that focus on more tangible skills-sets, competencies and knowledge, training to change behaviour needs to challenge long-held convictions, change mindsets and at the same time set out clear expectations.

One thing is for sure: the safe approach does not work. When dealing with entrenched values, ways of thinking and ways of behaving, it is only by being risky that you will deliver change. You cannot meaningfully address those with a PowerPoint presentation or a policy briefing.

In our work with some of the larger UK employers, the challenge we have often faced is how to train behaviour change when the behaviours in question might be unacceptable but the people in question are unwilling to question their own thought processes, or simply don’t see the need to change. In a workforce the size of a small town, issues such as dignity and diversity present a real test because of the mixture of people and their own different value sets.

When it’s not just a case of compliance training or enforcing rules, the subject of dignity at work falls into the gap between e-learning and face-to-face training. Clearly, e-learning is not the appropriate medium when dealing with such nuanced and human subject matter, however an employer may not have the resources to roll out in-person interactive workshops.

So how do you create training assets that are non-instructive, provocative, introduce some hard-hitting issues, stimulate debate, open discussion and force individuals to question their own and each other’s thought processes?

According to research, to bring about behaviour change we must address the causes of attitudes: beliefs (‘no-one gets offended by a bit of banter’), values (‘you need to have a laugh at work to make it worthwhile’) and personal needs (‘I need to be popular – or to cause a stir - at work’).

We have come to the conclusion, as have many of our clients, that the answer lies in humour. This in itself may sound risky – after all, we must not make light of the effects of some of the most harmful workplace behaviours. However, to apply a psychological logic, the idea is to dehumanise the issues that are the hardest to de-personalise, in a way that allows trainers to introduce very controversial and hard-hitting issues into discussion.

For example, we are currently designing a communications campaign for a major UK manufacturing client using cartoon dinosaurs – the idea being that they represent behaviours that employers wish to make extinct. The HR director in question has embraced the idea because it allows us to be deliberately controversial: each cartoon character represents or embodies a different unacceptable workplace behaviour, and their words, actions and impact are depicted in a way that an HR department might not perhaps feel so comfortable with if represented by humans.

One of the key differentiators is the fact that the behaviours are not directly linked to a characteristic that is protected by discrimination law, therefore it is the behaviour in and of itself that is the focus, not the fact that it also happens to be contrary to the law. Also, by adding a layer of detachment, we have been able to use the “Dignity Dinosaurs” to successfully stimulate discussion and debate around some of the most uncomfortable, difficult to address issues such as stereotyping, rumour mongering and ‘no harm intended’ casual insulting.

To take this idea to its extreme, it has been interesting to see how far some HR directors have been willing to push the concept. In more than one case at the design stage, we have presented HR departments with a series of scenarios – depicted with very near-the-knuckle humour, and we were impressed at how risky they were prepared to be. On a spectrum from dealing with fairly low-level and common workplace irritants to extreme examples of toxic behaviours, most went straight for the most damaging examples.

To illustrate this, more than once our senior HR client has gravitated towards a scenario that shows employees playing a cruel practical joke on a colleague by spreading rumours that he is a paedophile – the reason being that subjects such as this are immensely difficult to tackle effectively in training. The common belief appeared to be that in order to deal with something so risky, we have to be risky.

Having decided to try and do something unprecedented and innovative in training that goes beyond the bland compliance message, the next challenge L&D teams will face will be to get buy-in from the top. In so many organisations, there is naturally an “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” culture, so securing board-level support to do something proactive and provocative, rather than reactive and safe, is critical.

The key is to communicate the simple message that to be really effective, dignity at work training needs to aim for behaviour change and behaviour change can only be achieved by challenging attitudes. Any new training initiative needs to be piloted and the views of the sceptics must be taken into account. The idea is to trigger legitimate disagreements as this will set off a debate around how to deal meaningfully with employee issues as they arise. At this point it should become clear that, whichever side of the debate you are on, dignity is a topic that needs to be dealt with head on.


About the author

Vicky Roberts is head of learning and development at HR services firm Vista


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