Get with the programme

When HR manager Donna Alder had to oversee the outplacement of 700 people at healthcare company GlaxoSmithKline on Merseyside, she drew on the communication tools she had acquired from a course in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

“I wanted to make sure that people could leave the site with their heads held high,” she says. “I ran group and one-to-one workshops covering subjects such as choosing attitude. I drew on the NLP philosophy that ‘change happens every second of the day’.”

Alder is among a growing number of HR professionals to get involved with NLP – a psychological approach that claims to ‘re-pattern’ individuals to achieve anything, from overcoming a fear of spiders to simply becoming a better sales person.

It doesn’t stop there. Paul McKenna, once famous as a radio broadcaster and then TV hypnotist, now makes thousands of pounds a day from teaching NLP to corporate clients across the UK. Add to that the fact that NLP books rank in the top 10 best-selling business titles, and that one training school alone, The School of NLP, based in Manchester and Nottingham, had 1,000 course delegates last year, and you can get some idea of its popularity.

The growth of coaching has further boosted its appeal, with coaches using NLP certificates as evidence of their skills in communicating with others.

“When appointing a coach, I would always look for NLP qualifications,” says head of learning and development at Claire’s Accessories, Gillian Ince. “NLP is about getting into someone’s world and seeing how they work. An NLP qualification would give me confidence in someone.”

For what it’s worth

But some organisations question the value NLP can add to HR professionals or other managers’ existing skills.

At Co-operative Financial Services, for example, head of talent management, Pat Ashworth, is currently studying for a practitioner certificate in NLP, but needs to demonstrate the return on investment to her employer.

“The certificate gives me useful techniques for a better level of coaching, both to my direct reports and to delegates on our talent management course,” she argues.

Yet the sceptics write off NLP as hocus-pocus. “NLP is nebulous until you get into it,” argues Phil Hayes, co-founder of the Management Futures consultancy and author of the soon-to-be-published book NLP Coaching. “This is because it is a practical tool and there is not much underlying theory.”

Hayes overcame his own scepticism about NLP when it helped him to conquer his fear of heights, but he acknowledges that it is open to misinterpretation.

“At worst it is an avenue for charlatans and egomaniacs,” he says. “But it is good for HR. NLP is about helping practitioners to be excellent in their dealings with people.

”It is certainly hard to generalise about NLP. Each NLP training provider offers a different slant on the subject. Some couple it with hypnotherapy, others offer it with horse whispering holidays in the Dordogne, and the market is unregulated.

Part of the reason behind NLP’s ‘hippie’ reputation is that much of the practice is hidden behind obscure terms such as ­‘filters’ (referring to perceptions and how they are used) or ‘anchoring’ (the process of making associations that work through conscious choice so that they can be triggered when appropriate).

Other terms, such as ‘modelling’ (a way of finding out what makes a person successful and duplicating that behaviour) are more accessible.

Model behaviour

Approaches such as modelling could help HR promote its own reputation within a business, argues NLP trainer, and author of NLP at Work, Sue Knight.

“It gives HR the tools to detect why people do things and what they do,” she says. “This can be useful in interviewing, in coaching and to transform HR’s profile.

”NLP can also help with creating self confidence says Ruth Mundy, HR director at professional support services firm Mouchel Parkman.

Mundy took the NLP master practitioner certificate about seven years ago.

“It was partly about my personal development,” she says, pointing out that she used NLP to work on her own limiting beliefs and to broaden her outlook.“Some people are operationally focused, but HR is multi-­dimensional and one aspect of that is developing your personality and pushing out the boundaries.

“A career in HR is not just about learning about legislation – hopefully it can make you more influential,” she says.

But does NLP ultimately boost the standing of HR?

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) offers short, ­awareness-raising courses for HR professionals about NLP techniques. CIPD adviser Angela Baron says that it can be useful to know about NLP, but she concludes that it has to be kept in perspective. “NLP is a process, not a psychology qualification,” she says. “It is a tool to help ­people understand situations better, or how human beings can learn.”

What is NLP?

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is an approach that can teach us to adapt the patterns of thought and language that run our personal and work lives to gain more influence.

The term was coined 30 years ago at the University of California when maths undergraduate Richard Bandler and professor of linguistics John Grinder developed an interest in psychotherapy.

Grinder and Bandler later went their separate ways and various models of NLP have evolved in an unregulated market. Courses cost around £2,000 for eight or nine days’ training.

Accreditation or endorsement for such certificates usually comes from industry member organisations such as the Society of NLP (started by Bandler), the International NLP Trainers Association or the Association of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

The sceptic’s view

The lack of evidence for the claims made about ­neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a major concern for experts in psychology.

They suggest cherry-picking elements that work for an individual, rather than swallowing the concept whole.

Chartered occupational psychologist and partner in the Pearn Kandola consultancy, Ceri Roderick, says that the very term is misleading. “NLP is a range of techniques that have been lumped together,” he says. “Even its title is problematic – it makes it sound scientific.”

Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London, agrees. “No academic has ever taken NLP seriously,” he says. “The quality of empirical evidence in favour of the assumptions appears to be seriously lacking.”

“NLP tends to be promoted by acolytes who really buy into it wholesale,” adds Roderick. “It is a little piece of magic that people are keen to seize and use.”

Roderick believes that NLP treats the complexity of human behaviour as simpler than it is. He highlights the NLP technique for identifying thinking preferences, which concentrates on where people focus when they try to recall information. “Being able to divine people’s intentions by eye movements, for example, is at best unproven,” he says.

“Bits of it are useful and, in fairness, most of the HR practitioners I have come across tend to pick up what makes sense for them rather than take specific techniques,” he says.

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