The trainable and the non-trainable

Written by Martyn Sloman on 4 July 2013

Will Rogers, the great American comedian of radio days, once made the following observation: "You never get a second chance to make a first impression". This clever quip offers a good basis to start any discussion on the elusive competency of 'impact'. I had cause to reflect on it after something that happened to me last month.

I received and accepted an invitation to attend a fund-raising event for a Norfolk Parliamentary candidate. The event was held at a central London restaurant and was full of Islington councillors - a typical Blairite gathering of Labour luvvies. I didn't know the people round me so dutifully introduced myself. Two seats down was a very well-presented man in his 40s who turned out to be a professor at a prestigious London medical school; we exchanged cards and commented on our respective roles.  Five minutes later Ed Balls arrived to a flurry of attention. My new medical friend said that he was running short of cards so could I return the one he had given me so he could give it to the Shadow Chancellor. I was left reflecting on whether my impact now put me in the third, fourth or fifth division.

Since I have no great political ambitions the incident amused rather than upset; subsequently, I have enjoyed relating it, with suitable embellishments, to my friends.  However, for some people impact can be an issue.  First impressions can be particularly important in consultancy for example. This has caused be to reflect whether impact is a competency or an innate trait or characteristic. The distinction here is important: the former, competencies, can be trained or developed; traits or characteristics cannot.

Together with impact, let me offer two other 'borderline competencies' that may not be trainable. The first is resilience; the second is integrity. Before howls of anguish issue forth from any occupational psychologist who may be reading let me extend the general point before considering each in turn. In all three cases it is possible, and unquestionably helpful, to increase self-awareness of these 'non-trainable' characteristics. It may be possible to develop coping mechanisms for dealing with any weakness.  However, my contention is that no amount of training or coaching can take a weak individual beyond the status of average performer. If this is so we need to adopt a different perspective when formulating development courses or assessments of these non-trainable competencies.

Impact is the most straightforward. You can, with the required sensitivity, get people to dress appropriately. We've all worked with someone who doesn't iron their shirts properly. You can coach people in the techniques of social interaction - indeed some people make a lot of money from providing such a service. You can get them into the habit of saying good morning when they enter the office.  However, and there is no way round it, some people do have greater 'face validity' than others. It may be real charisma - I've never met him but that's what everybody says about Bill Clinton. It may be simply a matter of looking the part.  We've all worked with someone whose wider reputation in the organisation far exceeds the opinion of those who have to work closely with him or her.  

Resilience is more complex and more difficult. Again we've all seen it demonstrated in practice: the person who by sheer determination and unstinting application has turned round an impossible situation where others would have conceded defeat.  It's impossible to detect this trait at interview and, in my view, the only relevant development activity is to encourage people to look after their health and to identify their most effective coping mechanisms. Whenever I've been under any real pressure I've found a proper lunch break followed by a short walk helps.

If anything integrity is even more difficult to understand. Here I must go back to my political experience. During my late 20s and early 30s I was politically active and worked alongside some of the baby-boomer generation who entered parliament as Labour MPs.  Several of them (a small minority of the whole) hit trouble in the expenses scandal and one served time in prison. The detail of these cases depressingly demonstrated not so much greed as an appalling weakness of character. Putting it bluntly, when they saw an opportunity to get away with something they choose to grasp it.  However, and this is the point here, I would never have guessed that these would have been the individuals who would have yielded to temptation in this way.  How could one possibly detect this weakness? 

So I'm certain that, whatever one says about impact and resilience, the important trait of integrity is innate and cannot be trained or developed. Out of curiosity can any reader come up with other non-trainable competencies? How about curiosity?

About the author
Martyn Sloman is a visiting professor at Kingston Business School and a teaching fellow at Birkbeck College. He is principal consultant to TJ's L&D 2020 project and can be contacted at martynsloman@me.com
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