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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Understanding Human Behaviour – not so simple.


Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Peter Cheese opened his organisation’s annual conference today with the words “Fundamentally, the heart of HR is understanding Human Behaviour”.  I can see his point.  How can HR support organisations to achieve their goals without an understanding of what motivates people, how they will react in certain circumstances and how they can best improve their capability?

Despite ‘understanding human behaviour’ being so important to HR, I am baffled about the number of myths which abound in HR circles. It is difficult to fathom why evidence free assertions are accepted so willingly.  Is it the slight whiff of the new age – a patchouli scented desire to embrace the fact free? Or is it gullibility/a lack of time/inability to read (delete as appropriate) which means that the half-baked and the half understood circulate so freely in HR and L&D circles?

A CIPD report on the ultra-zeitgeist-y topic of Neuroscience released this week  is an interesting overview from a range of organisations who have adjusted their L&D approaches through a greater appreciation of recent research.  Interestingly, the report’s authors felt the need to specifically highlight the existence of ‘neuro-myths’.  There is a concern that the neuroscience bandwagon will be jumped on by a fair few self-proclaimed experts - those who will perpetuate any  myth which bolsters the positioning of their product and service.

As the report says: “With this in mind it is important for L&D and HR professionals to think critically about neuroscience, particularly information published in sensationalised headlines. Explore it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.” I’d prefer ‘draw conclusions which the evidence supports – no more, no less’ but I agree with the general point.

Neuroscience is just one of the areas in which those organisations working in the HR and learning arena try to create a cutting edge about products and services – especially those which are tired or out-dated. An L&D company changing what they do to reflect current research is difficult.  Borrowing the clothes of recent thinking – regardless of how well they fit – is so much easier.

In another CIPD report this week (you can tell they've got a conference on, can’t you) a study found that work is less central to people than once it was and that this requires employers to adopt a more agile approach to employment.  The most significant finding of the study is that if you undertake a study with an organisation called ‘The Agile Future Forum’ the conclusion from the study is that a more agile future is needed.  Who knew?

One other area where research has been bent to match the interests of those promoting it has been in the area of technology.  There is a belief that younger workers are more tech savvy and more interested in learning via technological means.  This does not seem to be borne out by the limited research which I have conducted.  In fact, when I undertook a survey in a large public sector organisation a few years ago, it was the under 25 year olds who were by far the most resistant to the use of eLearning.  Now, of course, that may have been because they had had more experience of online modules and found them wanting. I didn’t ask that question.  However, in that organisation, the older the employer, the more willing they were to use online resources and courses to maintain and increase their competence.

There have been other studies which seem to reach similar conclusions to my limited research – that is, that younger workers are not necessarily more technologically competent, nor more interested in learning via technology than other, older workers.

This is one of the myths about so-called Millennials – those who have joined the workforce in the last few years, born since the mid 80s.  I find it difficult to sign up to any belief system that seeks to lump people together in broad categories – as if one similarity (such as a date of birth) defines the individual more effectively than hair colour, skin colour or gender.  Generalisations about the young were pretty rubbish when The Who sang about My Generation in 1965.  They haven’t improved.

One of the reasons for the perpetuation of myths about Millennials is the desire to simplify research for our seemingly less literary times. (I’m old enough to be horrified by the text acronym TL:DR – ‘too long : didn’t read’ for those of you who haven’t encountered it before).

Another piece of research – Workforce 2020 - carried out by Oxford Economics in association with SAP found that “Millennials are different, but not as different as companies think.”  

Their findings exploded a number of myths. Apparently they found no evidence to support that commonly held assertion that  ‘Millennials care more about making a positive different in the world through work’ or ‘Meeting income goals is less important to Millennials as long as they are learning and growing.’  They should have saved their research efforts in surveying 2,700 employees and a similar number of executives.  All they had to do was look at the graduate recruitment statistics. Graduate recruitment schemes have always attracted more candidates than there are places – and over the last few years there have routinely been around 70 graduates chasing each graduate training place.  There is a notable exception however.  In the aftermath of the financial crisis the more venal, self-serving of the bankers are about as popular as finding half a slug in a salad. Millennials have voted with their feet in terms of applying for graduate recruitment schemes managed by investment banks and the like. 

Yup.  Instead of 70 people chasing each graduate pace, in banking there are around 150 chasing each graduate place.  Apparently, the values driven Millennials are not averse to courting unprincipled unpopularity if it means they get their share of the fat cat’s cream.

Now of course, I make no judgement about all young employees by using these illustrations.  Clearly some young people do have a finely tuned social conscience. But then so do lots of 30 – 40 year olds and 40 – 50 year olds and even those of us over 50!

This is exactly what the findings of the Oxford Economics/SAP research found.  Millennials may be a bit different, but not very much.  In fact, they had more in common with those from previous generations than might have been expected.  But if we turn to the obligatory infographic which accompanies the report, what do we see? 

In five factors: making a positive difference, compensation, work life balance, meaningful work and achieving income goals - the differences between Millennials and non Millennials were found to be insignificant – a gap of less than 4% at most.  Most statisticians use what is known as a confidence interval.  This is the degree to which they would allow for error in the figures, especially if based on self-reporting.  The application of a confidence interval would remove these slim differences completely.

Despite this clarity, the headline which attracted me to the report was “Only 30% of executive say their companies give special attention to the particular wants and needs of Millennials!”  This was expressed in bold, 48pt font.  This was IMPORTANT!!! 


Of course, they don’t give special attention to them!  As their own  research shows, Millenials' needs and wants are broadly in line with every other employee – to be respected, to be rewarded appropriately and to be given opportunities to develop with the firm.  If there is a mechanism for listening to employees at all (and I think in many organisations there isn’t) then all sectors of the workforce should be listened to.  Not just those who fit into a handy category which we can discuss to make us seem in touch and down with de yoof.

As Peter Cheese says, understanding human behaviour is at the heart of what we should be doing.  Lazy generalisations and pat categorisations hinder rather than help that understanding. Selecting simplistic ‘facts’ and bending them to fit our own preconceptions and product features muddies the water still further.  

If one thing is shown by the myriad research studies into what employees and their managers think it is that people are complex. Our job is to help them understand themselves and respond positively to our offers of assistance.

Robin Hoyle is a consultant and author.  His book Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement is published by Kogan Page.  He will be discussing the guiding principles behind Complete Training on Learning Now TV on Thursday 27th November at 8pm. 

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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