Overcoming Narratives

One of the most interesting things you run into when training is when you start to contradict the personal narratives of the folks in your class. What I mean is, we all have narratives. These are the stories we tell ourselves to explain the world around us. These narratives become part of the cognitive dissonance that can make it so difficult to change minds because information that conflicts with our narratives is a huge challenge for us. You see this all the time when dealing with world-views and politics. Statistics, facts, stories that fit our narrative are accepted without delay or any skepticism, while those that contradict our narrative are much more likely to be dismissed. That’s not because we are so very good at determining the truth, it has much, much more to do with whether we want our narratives challenged. Most people do not, thus most people are not at all good at determining truth from fiction.

This post, however, is not about cognitive dissonance. I could go on and on citing examples of it, but I’m going to assume that we all know it exists, and also that most of us have no idea how deeply rooted it is in ourselves, even if we know it is in other people. ;-)

This post is, however, about training and the challenge of having to contradict long-held narratives of the people you are training. Now, obviously, when doing software training, you’re not dealing with large political issues or issues of faith, but you are dealing with workplace issues and possibly changing the way people work from day to day. Believe me, these things can be as deeply held as political views for some people. They can be very reluctant to change the way they work. They already know how to get things done, new technology that changes the way they get things done, even when the technology makes it much, much more efficient, means going from a world where the narrative makes sense, is comfortable, and most importantly, that they have mastered, to one where they have to start over from the beginning.

You can always tell when people are having trouble with their narratives about their job. The start asking questions about how they will do this or that, when this or that isn’t really needed any longer. They will struggle to fit the new technology into their old workflow, because their narrative tells them that the workflow is the thing to aim for, not the final result. Frankly, sometimes, the most effective way to reach these folks is to be very direct with them about this fact, but you have to be very careful with this method. If you’re too harsh, they will tune you out. Not harsh enough, and you risk them not truly understanding that they need new narratives, even if the idea is uncomfortable for them.

Frankly, I’m not sure that there’s an easy answer here. On the other hand, I think good trainers will recognize when they are teaching someone who is struggling with their narratives and have a plan for dealing with that, gently. It’s one thing to simply plow forward and tell everyone that this is new, and better, and the way they’ve been doing things is just plain wrong now. It’s quite another to understand that the narratives are powerful, and that being good at the current workflow is an important part of self-identifying as a good worker, and move people toward trying to become better, as opposed to holding on to old ways of doing things.

Learning a new way of doing things is never easy, but not learning a new way does leave you behind the times, which is also not a good career move. Don’t let the narratives of your day to day work, or the narratives of your organization, get in the way of doing things better.

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