Do your training programs assume people think alike?

-by Ed Bernacki

You open the manual for a leadership training program. On page 1 you read:

“The authors of this training program assume that people think alike, and think in the same way as the authors. The models and tools we recommend work well for us. As such, these ideas will work for you.”

How would you react?

The reality is that a manual won’t publish this warning. And that is a shame as it’s the truth with training programs.

I have worked in the area of cognitive diversity and innovation for 15 years. I recently found research that confirms my belief that training often has a cognitive bias in its design and delivery. For example:

  • The person who creates a program has a specific thinking style
  • This style of thinking creates the program, making it totally appropriate for people who think the same way as the program developer
  • The program presenter can also bring their own cognitive bias to a program in terms of what they see as important
  • The presenter also creates a cognitive climate in the way they present ideas, engage people, and answer questions from participants
  • Whether you use MBTI, KAI or DISC, it’s obvious that people do not think alike. Yet do we use this insight when designing training programs? The research suggests not

Armstrong, Cools, Sadler-Smith (2011) in the ‘Role of Cognitive Styles in Business and Managing’ suggest, “Cognitive style refers to consistent individual differences in how individuals perceive, think, solve problems, learn, take decisions and relate to others” 1. If we know that there are consistent individual differences, should we not ensure our training programs recognise these differences?

Some training takes notice of the various styles of learning, but what about decisionmaking, problem-solving and collaboration? I see little evidence that we notice these differences.

Let’s explore cognitive diversity and training, starting with a practical example of this lack of awareness. It was a training manual for an executive leadership program. It talked about leadership and the need for leaders to set goals. The best way to do so is SMART goal setting:

S—Specific and significant: Your goal or problem statement should be a clear statement of what you want to create.

M—Measurable and meaningful: Making goals measurable helps you see your progress.

A—Action-oriented and achievable: Your goal should focus on actions that you can control.

R—Realistic and relevant: Realistic is another word for achievable.

T—Time-bound and tangible: Set a deadline to add a sense of urgency.

About the same time I read a study by the Leadership IQ 2 which said SMART goals do not correlate with success. Its study of 4,182 workers from 397 organisations found that the following eight factors predicted whether somebody’s goals would help them achieve great things.

1. I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals.

2. I will have to learn new skills to achieve my assigned goals for this year.

3. My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.

4. I actively participated in creating my goals for this year.

5. I have access to any formal training that I will need to accomplish my goals.

6. My goals for this year will push me out of my comfort zone.

7. My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me (customers or the community).

8. My goals are aligned with the organisation’s top priorities for this year.

The report adds, “The typical goal-setting processes companies have been using for decades are not helping employees achieve great things. And, in fact, the type of goalsetting we should be doing is pretty much the opposite of what organisations have been doing for the past few decades.” The authors tell us to focus on HARD goals instead of SMART goals:

H—Heartfelt: My goals will enrich the lives of somebody besides me.

A—Animated: I can vividly picture how great it will feel when I achieve my goals.

R—Required: My goals are absolutely necessary to help this company.

D—Difficult: I will have to learn new skills and leave my comfort zone to achieve my goals.

Unless you believe all people think alike, why do we make such assertions? SMART goal setting is a highly structured approach. This is useful for people who prefer structure. What about the others? They often feel repressed by the focus on highlystructured goals. They may appreciate HARD goal setting as an option.

We cannot make people think that it is wrong to think in the style that is most comfortable for them. As trainers, why not provide both SMART and HARD models and encourage people to pick the model more useful for their style of thinking?

I learned my lessons from research and workshops by Dr Kirton [3] who developed a body of knowledge called ‘Adaption- Innovation Theory’. It focuses on cognitive style, the way we think, solve problems and deal with change.

Kirton created the Adaption–Innovation Theory and an assessment tool (KAI) to provide a way to understand these issues. The theory is a continuum between two extremes in thinking style based on the need people have for structure. Two-thirds of people will fall between these extremes. A vast amount of research has been undertaken to create the original models. It may seem familiar as the basic concept has been copied by numerous consulting firms. The following are some characteristics of these styles at the extremes.

Adaptive style of thinkers

  • Adaptive thinkers tend to accept the problems as defined
  • Early resolution of problems, limiting disruption and immediate increased efficiency are important to them
  • They challenge rules rarely, cautiously, when assured of strong support and problem solving within consensus
  • They are sensitive to people, maintain group cohesion and cooperation
  • Adaptors prefer to generate a few relevant and acceptable solutions aimed at doing things better. These solutions are relatively easier to implement

Innovative style of thinkers

  • Innovators tend to reject the generally accepted perception of problems and redefine them. Their view of the problem may be hard to get across
  • They seem less concerned with immediate efficiency, looking to possible long-term gains
  • They often challenge rules. They may have little respect for past approaches
  • They may appear insensitive to people when solving problems, so they often threaten group cohesion and cooperation
  • Innovators generally produce many ideas; some may not appear relevant to others. Such ideas often result in doing things differently

We do a disservice to people if we ignore cognitive diversity. You cannot blame an innovative thinker for questioning everything (including your program, tools and models) as this is predictable behaviour. We should see these differences as a platform and then develop training ideas to engage people from both ends of the thinking style continuum.

This is far better than a ‘one size fits all’ style of training. Ignoring this difference is much like a right-handed golf instructor who wants to train people to play golf. He shows up with right-handed golf clubs.

What if some people are left handed? Are you critical of their inability to grasp right-handed golf? Perhaps we should acknowledge the failure to see the obvious and bring some left-handed clubs.

I think we fail people when we fail to design programs that incorporate the obvious differences in the way people think. If you think I am wrong, show me an example. In five years of asking for specific examples of how we create options for those who want structure and those who resist it, I have only one—Weight Watchers.

A woman in Canada showed me two options. One involved using a spreadsheet that requires you to cook and weigh your food. The other is a small booklet with pictures of food groups. You pick one item from each picture and your serving is the size of a small fist. The point is monitoring what you put in your mouth. How you define what you put on your plate is irrelevant. You pick the option that works for you.

That’s my vision—education, development and even diet programs are developed and delivered by people who make it safe for people to think in the style most comfortable to them. Perhaps someday I will open a training manual to read:

“This training program has been certified as ‘FCB’ (Free of Cognitive Bias) to remove any bias the authors may have. All models and tools have been tested by people from a diversity of thinking styles. We encourage you to use the tools most useful to your style of thinking.”


References 1 Armstrong, Cools, Sadler-Smith (2011). ‘Role of Cognitive Styles in Business and Managing: Reviewing 40 Years of Research’, International Journal of Management Reviews. 2 Leadership IQ— the study is found at www.leadershipiq.com 3 There are many sources for Dr Kirton’s work. He published a comprehensive book in 2003: Adaption– Innovation in the Context of Diversity and Change, Routledge, New York.