The Failure of Professional Development: Push vs. Pull


One of the common laments of those involved in the planning of professional development is that the concepts learned are often not implemented.

The problem is that too often, we try to force people to learn. We push and coerce, hoping that if we can ensure that a person’s body is in the room, they will somehow absorb the information being presented to them.

Then we get people in the room, and they zone out.   They play on their cell phone; they read the newspaper; they talk to their neighbor. Our response is often to try more coercion: tell people to put away their cell phone and the paper and be quiet. And we lament how unprofessional people are.

The problem is that coercion is not the answer. Power is a basic need that we all have, and when someone else tries to exert power over us, our natural tendency is to push back. To this day, whenever someone tells me I “have” to do something, I feel my inner two-year old stomping her feet and saying “You can’t make me!” I feel this way even when I think that what they want me to do is a good idea!

Instead of pushing people by exerting external force, if we want people to really learn and implement ideas, they need to want to do so. The motivation needs to come from inside them. We need to create a pull.

The pull is created when we help people to meet their basic needs. When people see a purpose for what is being presented, and can see how implementing an idea is going to work for them, we don’t need to coerce. When people feel they have a voice and a choice in the direction the team is going, engagement follows. When we create a working environment where striving for excellence is a core value of the organization, people get excited about being part of something important.

I’ve been challenged that there are people this doesn’t work with. That even under these conditions there are people who do not engage, are resistant to learning, and don’t do a good job. Of course there are! But I think that we fool ourselves by thinking that coercion is going to fix that. I could confiscate their phone, grab the newspaper out of their hands, and make them sit at the front of the room by themselves. Do you really think that your grand idea is going to be enthusiastically embraced by that person after your PD session is complete?

The bottom-line is that the only person you can control is yourself. You cannot force someone to care, to learn, or to do their best job. But creating a pull instead of a push increases the chances of tapping into a person’s internal motivation to do so!

What do you see happening with the teams you work with?

Can you think of a time you feel pushed?  Pulled?  Which was more motivating to you?


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