Rules, Roles, & Ethics in a Training Workshop

January is a busy season for Corporate Training Workshops and here at RSVP Design we have been busy too - running Workshops with a variety of training consultants and delegates. I’ve been reflecting on some of the potential challenges when considering rules, roles and ethics in the selection and use of experiential learning activities, and replaying some of the conversations we’ve had this month.

1. Activity Selection – as a Training Workshop designer, the choice of activity can represent not only the learning you want your delegates to achieve, or the behavioural changes you want them to rehearse, but also your role as a ‘leader’, reflecting their organisation values & culture. This was raised in an article in January by Roger Greenaway on using the well known 'Helium Stick' exercise. See Roger's Monthly Newsletter . I know this is a very popular ice-breaker or opening exercise for many trainers and can be slotted into any group or team programme without thinking through the consequences - which as Roger quite rightly points out can include ‘a claimed success (by the group and the facilitator) that almost certainly depends on foul play or on low awareness or on poor observation.’

At what point do the potential unintended consequences of using an activity outweigh the intended consequences?

If selecting an exercise where insufficient materials or resources are initially given to group, yet they are asked to solve a problem, is that an acceptable way to encourage them to ‘be creative’,  or does it reflect a culture where poorly crafted objectives are the norm, and leaders expect colleagues to do high quality work with inadequate tools?

2. Roles – as a Training Workshop Leader there is a tacit or explicit assumption that you are in a Leadership role, whether or not you see your principal role as a facilitator of learning. It always surprises me when I bring our experiential learning activities to groups of trainers to experience them, and they say things like 'he probably hasn’t told us everything’, or ‘that material is likely to be a red herring’ or ‘this is probably impossible’. I wonder what their experience is that they should immediately distrust the Training Workshop Leader? Perhaps there is too much use, selection and creation of experiential activities where the task activities are such that the leadership role played by the facilitator or trainer is that of someone who knows they are asking a group to do something that can’t be done? At best this is insincere and at worst it is a poor leadership role model.

3. Rules – many participants will react when told activity rules include ‘wearing a blindfold', or ‘not speaking to anyone’, or ‘not sharing information with others’, by saying things such as ‘this rule makes no sense’, or ‘why should I obey a rule in a silly game?’ A poor response from a Training Workshop Leader would include ‘Well that’s the rules of this game so please abide by them!’

A better response might be ‘How do people in this organisation decide which rules to follow? Is every rule automatically followed or are some bent or broken, and if so, who decides?’, or perhaps ‘This is not designed to be a simulation where the task is very similar to your job role. It is a learning process where you have the opportunity to experience some learning in an unfamiliar situation. The rules reflect some constraints which are similar to those in real life, and therefore as in real life, we hope you will treat them as important rules that reflect things such as Health & Safety, or Corporate Compliance’. As leaders, I think either the Training Workshop Leader has to model an organisational culture where rules are important and should be followed, or to clarify why and where it might be appropriate not to. However, rules should reflect metaphors for some real-life constraints and not simply to make an activity more challenging or interesting.

4. Ethics – sometimes there will be a ‘trick’ or an answer to an activity that if revealed too early, may make the learning impact less effective for individuals or a group. I think care has to be taken on how to choose and apply such activities following some of the issues discussed earlier. So while it might be ethically acceptable for a leader to ask someone to do a task, (for learning or coaching purposes), knowing they could help them by telling them the answer, it is less acceptable for a leader to ask someone to complete something that cannot be done. For example, an activity was described to me where the participants were asked to complete a jigsaw with an incomplete set of pieces provided; and another suggested deliberately making a change in a task without the knowledge of the participants, so that it became unachievable (under the guise of getting participants to react to ‘change’). I find both these approaches lack a basic code of leadership ethics and I would not want to put myself in the position of deliberately misleading a group. Perhaps in the first activity if say all the pieces were available but perhaps spread amongst different sub-groups, then that could be an acceptable design, and in the second, if it was incumbent to regularly check that conditions hadn’t changed, then that might also be acceptable - but I suspect I would still take another approach to experiencing the ‘change’ process!

I’d love to hear other’s views on these areas – here at RSVP Design we try not to design, supply or use any activity in our catalogue that might fail our reflected leadership role or ethics guidance as listed above. We think it’s important. Do you?

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