Home » Patrick Vermeren: The Uncomfortable Truth of HR and Leadership Development (Transcript)

Patrick Vermeren: The Uncomfortable Truth of HR and Leadership Development (Transcript)

Patrick Vermeren at TEDxKMA

Here is the full transcript of researcher Patrick Vermeren’s TEDx Talk: The Uncomfortable Truth of HR and Leadership Development at TEDxKMA conference.

Patrick Vermeren – Researcher

I both love and hate the business of human resources and you will soon understand why.

This vivacious young girl was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 21. Like so many patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, she did not want to accept her disease and she often refused to take her medication. She became so desperate that she decided to put her fate into the hands of a charlatan.

Very soon he had convinced her that it was the medication that made her feel ill. So he urged her to abandon that medication, and he convinced her to take his Bach flower remedies instead. Now, her condition soon deteriorated.

And one late afternoon in 1996, I received a phone call from her boyfriend because she was standing on the escape ladder of the apartment building where they lived. And she was threatening to throw herself off. So I rushed over, and we somehow managed to save her by recklessly storming down the ladder and grabbing her tightly. And with the help of her family and a lawyer, she was rid of the charlatan. But the damage had already been done.

She tried to commit suicide on several occasions. And this was, of course, a turning point in my life and my career because I realized, because I personally witnessed how dangerous pseudoscience and quackery could be, so I realized how dangerous it could be.

And what has this got to do with human resources? Well, at the start of my career, I had to attend training in Transactional Analysis, and this theory states that during the first three years of our lives we make our life script, including the diseases we will have and try to conquer. And this sounded so very strange to me that I decided to challenge the trainer.

And I asked her, “Is schizophrenia a choice too?” And she confirmed that it was! Now, in fact, the woman I’ve been talking about was my sister-in-law. And we had been well informed by the doctors and specialized patients organizations that this was total nonsense.

She finally killed herself at the age of only 36. And yes, I realized how dangerous it could be, but I also – with a shock – realized that HR could be dangerous too. And I have experienced many examples. Take for example the case of Pete who had been a successful manager for many years until the point where he had to take a test based on an entirely crazy theory called “Spiral Dynamics”. It offers an alternative explanation for human evolution.

And he lost his position as a manager and even got fired after a few months. And still today, five years later, he hasn’t been able to find a new job mainly because he often felt too depressed. And he and his wife had to sell their house and they now live in a small apartment. This made me very angry and still makes me very angry if I see that desperate or vulnerable people are lured in.

So I decided to join the skeptic community and like a Don Quixote, I set out on a mission to reveal the truth about the many HR models and questionnaires.

I consulted the scientific literature to see whether these models were theoretically sound and what was the available evidence, be it positive or negative. So of course. I started looking at the practices we used at the bank first, where I worked. There was the practice of employee performance scores, giving people a score every year, and we even applied a forced ranking on that.

And we also created big pay gaps and paid individual bonuses, and we imposed top-down performance goals on people. And in coaching I had to attend a training based on John Whitmore’s GROW model, and of course, Transactional Analysis.

And I was led to believe in training that people have four distinct learning styles. I learned about Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs. I learned about the so-called Communication Rule by Albert Mehrabian. And our leaders had to follow a course in Situational Leadership by Ken Blanchard or a training based on the Stages of Grief model by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and they applied this as a guidance for change. I even had to follow a training in speed reading.

Now what did I find out about all of these models when I applied these criteria? Well, all of these models were quite simply wrong. Now this left me very confused and sometimes angry. I felt confronted. And maybe by now some of you have recognized some of these models and have the same feelings already. Because indeed, changing our deeply held convictions can be very challenging.

This reminds me of this famous quote:”The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” But I decided to search for the truth, so I continued.

In recruitment I came across practices such as graphology or brain scans, allegedly predicting your future performance or your honesty. And I found out that a lot of the questionnaires used the ipsative format or the forced choice format, basically making you choose between apples and pears even if you like them both. And in development I found out that Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or MBTI was very popular – it’s a fad that never dies.

And there’s also the ever-increasingly popular Insights Discovery. There was the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, making us believe that we have four distinct thinking styles and they’re located in nice areas in our brain. And there’s the Enneagram, and there’s the Belbin Team Roles. And in coaching I found out that Neuro-linguistic Programming was very popular, or NLP. But also Alpha training, making you believe that you can become more creative or be ever more intelligent by plugging into the universe.

And believe it or not, but some people actually believe that you can become a better leader of people…by getting feedback from a horse. And what is it with human resources that they so often follow the latest myth? Take for example: the 70:20:10 model by Charles Jennings. He is an Australian engineer who claims to be an expert at learning. But the research sucks, and the true experts in the field of learning say it’s total nonsense and some of them even call it an urban myth. So maybe by now you can raise your hands if you have ever been subjected to any of these models.

Why doesn’t it surprise me? So I continued, and there’s many more, and the list behind me is really very long, and this is evidence of the fact that human resources and management thinking is really very problematic.

Let me give some examples. In HR systems for example, there’s the practice of giving people an annual score and applying a forced ranking. Some organizations even follow the advice of Jack Welch, who was the former CEO of General Electric, to fire, every year, the bottom 10%. Fire or yank – that’s why they called it “rank and yank”.

This is very strange, because already in 1996, Kluger and DeNisi had conducted a meta-analysis demonstrating that giving people a score has a zero effect on performance. But only in the last few years have some organizations started to abandon this practice.

And take, for example, the big pay gaps created by Rank Order Tournament Theory. It was a theory invented by two economists. But this led to less information sharing, more fraud, lowered group performance, the best people actually leaving first, and a lot of people perceiving the payment policy as highly unfair.

This theory, in the US, led to the CEO to worker average pay ratio explosion. In 1983, the average CEO gained 46 times more. By 2013, it had already increased to 331 times more. But if you compare it to the minimum wage, it’s even a staggering 774 times more. And it doesn’t need to be like this, because we know in HR systems there are good frameworks and tools.

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