The (uncomfortable) truth of HR and leadership development | Patrick Vermeren | TEDxKMA

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Translator: Rik Delaet Reviewer: Ivana Krivokuća

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

(Audio: horse whinnies)

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.

(Indistinct chatter in the audience)

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.

Take for example

the Productivity Measurement and Enhancement System - ProMES:

a meta-analysis has demonstrated that it increases productivity

whilst people keep their autonomy.

And they can participate in their goal setting

and in the decision about their performance indicators.

And sometimes theories are really absurd

and it doesn't require a lot of intelligence to understand.

Take for example the Enneagram.

It's very old,

it goes back several thousands of years ago to a Sufi sect,

but the most important proponent was Gurdjieff.

And he believed that we are three-brained beings,

here on this Earth to serve the Moon.

Because we are forever in debt towards the Moon,

because the Moon was split from the Earth.

Can you believe that?

Or take Organizational Constellations

where they put people in a room,

and through a kind of paranormal or quantum process,

they solve their problems.

The only problem is,

quantum mechanics simply cannot operate in a warm environment like our brain.

And some believe in the paranormal.

Few people realize that Carl Gustav Jung believed in the paranormal

and that tests like MBTI or Insights Discovery are based on it.

They prefer me to call it a questionnaire but…

He believed that in a far away parallel universe information is stored.

And this information contains pre-existent psychological archetypes.

And you can get access to them through a paranormal process.

Very absurd.

Some theories are just dead wrong.

Take for example LIFO, Enneagram, or MBTI,

that make us believe that the distribution in the population

looks a little bit like this: a dichotomous distribution.

If you compare it to other features of humans like physical height,

this would mean that we would almost have noone

between 1.60m and 1.80m.

And that is, of course, simply impossible.

And indeed, we know that most human features

and also our personality traits

follow a nice continuous distribution.

Like this.

And this is something that already Charles Darwin had told us.

Because he explained that evolutionary processes

lead to variation, resulting in this nice Gaussian distribution.

And take the myth of NLP or the learning styles.

They are both based on the false premise

that some people are more visual, others are more auditory,

and yet others are more kinesthetic.

And this is entirely wrong, it's entirely false,

because just like all other primates,

our visual sense is the most dominant in literally everyone,

as extensive research has demonstrated.

Sometimes theories are wrong in other respects like,

they offer wrong measurements.

Take again these forced choice questionnaires:

they often lead to entirely opposite selection advice,

compared to normative tests for example.

Or take the MBTI again: it has many flaws,

and the US National Research Council

has calculated that if people take the test a second time

after only four weeks,

then the median of people having an entirely different personality type

is a staggering 60%.

Imagine what it would do to your family life…


if you had to wonder every four weeks

what personality type will your family members have?

And again, it doesn’t need to be like this,

because in recruitment and selection,

we know what kind of tools are good predictors,

like intelligence and some aspects of personality.

And indeed if you look at personality,

there are theories based on that,

like the five-factor model or the six-factor model.

And we have good tests like the NEO-PI-R,

measuring the five-factor model of personality

or the HEXACO, measuring the six-factor model of personality.

And if you look at the real research data,

then we indeed see that these traits follow a nice distribution,

like this in extraversion.

So there is no such thing, there are not four types like in LIFO

or nine as in Enneagram or 16 as in MBTI.

There are literally more combinations

than the number of people living on this Earth.

Finally I also found out that many people lie,

not only about the so-called scientific status of their theories,

but also about their own degrees.

I contacted several universities

and they told me that a lot of people lie about their PhD for example.

So the problem with all of this is, of course,

if you put in garbage, then inevitably garbage must come out.

Nobody has ever been able to prove

that you can take right decisions based on entirely false information.

And the burden of proof, of course, is on them, not on us.

And I know some people say it's only a tool,

or only a discussion starter.

Let’s consider this:

imagine you are on a city trip in Paris

and you're lost and you ask someone for directions

and that person says,

"Well you can have my map because I'm going home."

And you gratefully unfold that map,

only to realize it's a map of New York.

So you ask that generous person what it means,

and that person says, "Well, it's only a navigation starter."


Of course that's silly.

Like that city map - that wrong city map -

won't get you anywhere in the city,

a wrong personality test or intelligence test

won't get you anywhere, for example, for your career decisions.

So the best option we really have is science and reason.

And we don't have to be so negative about science

because after all, it's only a method we have invented ourselves

to overcome our biases and thinking errors.

It has allowed us to abandon practices

like magic healing or witch burning,

and it has given us many benefits

like purified drinking water and lately, the internet.

So we don't have to be scientists ourselves but we can enjoy science.

Would you accept having surgery by a surgeon who never updates her skills?

Would you accept taking a drug

that doesn't help, but has a lot of side effects?

Would you accept it if an engineer lies about his degree as an engineer

and builds an unstable bridge?

Would you dare to fly with somebody

who has never been trained as a pilot and fly on this plane?

I think the answer is a clear no.

So if you don't accept a flawed blood test,

you should not accept a flawed personality test,

and if you don't accept a bogus cancer therapy,

you should not accept bogus coaching.

Think of the damage it can do if you use pseudoscience.

So if we don't accept bad practices and lies in other fields of our lives,

we should not accept them in HR.

Especially not since there are so many valid alternatives

that often are cheaper, easier to understand, and more accurate.

And we have them in training, and we have them in coaching.

And we also have good explanations like psychology based on biology,

explaining things like why we both compete and collaborate for example.

So the list of valid alternatives and approaches is very long too.

So there's really no excuse not to use them.

It's high time to abandon these bad practices,

it's high time we abandon the gurus like NLP guru Emile Ratelband

and Richard Bandler,

and turn towards the Champions League of biologists and psychologists instead,

like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker.

I have made a choice to abandon the bad, the wrong, and the pseudo models

because they can do possible harm to people.

And I embraced the science-based instead,

because they're much more reliable and they allow me to act morally.

And that is, of course, a choice we all can make.

Because with knowledge comes responsibility.

I urge all the leaders to critically question your HR practices.

Thank you.