Saturday, 26 March 2016


Earlier this week, I joined and participated in a particular professional tweetchat for the first time in several months and I was 'Mr Grumpy Pants' throughout. I found myself getting impatient with the L&D/ID/eLearning practitioner discussion, with only one or two other contributors reminding us about the 'customer' - be it the business or the learner themselves - whilst the main focus of the discussion rotated around eLearning outputs and related technology. I've tweeted and commented before about the tendency for us 'providers' to focus on our outputs, rather than our stakeholders' desired outcomes, and how we thereby perpetuate the disengagement of learners with 'product' and content, so I shan't repeat that here.

What really pushed me over the edge, however, was a comment made by one of the contributors, the CEO of a L&D/Training organisation, about their staff, which, I am sure, was meant in jest, but which surprised me by being aired in what I consider to be a reasonably 'enlightened' forum. The trigger word they used was 'subordinates'.

I've been a 'Manager' in both the public and private sectors for over 25 years. I've run my own business in partnership with my wife and others. I have a Level 4 Diploma in Management and have won a Training Manager of the Year award (for which I was nominated, without my knowledge, by my team and my own line manager). When I was ill last year, my team carried on our work autonomously and seamlessly, and continue to do so (apparently) now that I have followed a different professional path. If you read my LinkedIn profile, you will see that my career has always been one where I have worked collaboratively WITH others, even tho' I frequently held the title of being their 'Manager'. I have always considered those people to be my colleagues first and foremost and have never thought of myself as being 'superior' to them. I have always viewed my role to be that of developing my colleagues to get the best out of them that delivered the organisational requirements. To do that, I have met them as equals, as fellow-travellers with a shared interest in our field. And I have relied on them to fill in my blanks as I focussed on delivering our functional objectives.

So, back to the use of the term 'subordinates' in the above-mentioned tweetchat. I am not a fan of the use of the word 'passionate' in a professional context (as in, "I'm passionate about [insert subject here]". I think it's overused and consequently undervalued. It's become a cliche. As a result, I rarely use it. In fact, as circumstances and subsequent decisions have caused me to reflect on my professional future, I've realised that, actually, I'm not 'passionate' about L&D or Learning Technologies (that may turn out to be a career-limiting statement, of course). I'm good at them tho'. My track record demonstrates that. I am still very interested in and enjoy working in the field. I love the interactions and conversations I have with my peers and Personal Learning Network via Social Media and face to face. I know I have much still to offer, based on the knowledge, experience and skills I have developed over the last 35 years. But am I passionate about it? Really?

So I was surprised at my own reaction to the afore-mentioned tweet, referring to staff as 'subordinates'. I was genuinely shocked to see it, and I reacted in a totally emotional way. I was outraged. But I've learned about the pitfalls of 'firing from the hip' on social media What Else I Learned on my Holidays (2011) so I sat back, analysed how I really felt about it and then crafted and dropped a tweet anyway, acknowledging (hoping) that the comment had been made in jest, but challenging if that was an appropriate term to use nowadays.

One doesn't tweet challenging tweets without expecting some kind of response, so I wasn't surprised when the individual in question did respond. But I was surprised by the unrepentant (and frankly smug) response, that in their business, they do use that term (remember, this is the CEO of a large, apparently well-respected organisation, a self-proclaimed "performance training thought-leader"). 

Now well and truly triggered, I crafted and deleted several responses, finally settling on something close to what I wanted to say, which I then ran past my wife (@MandyRG) and asked her if I should even 'rise to the bait' by sending it. Her advice (as a trained psychotherapist) was that I was being invited into a 'game' and should be very careful about replying (wise woman!). But here's where 'passion' creeps back into the story. I really cared about this. I didn't want to let it lie. So I responded, acknowledging their right to operate their business as the liked, but that I chose to use different language in referring to my colleagues. Respectful but still making my point, I felt.

And then they hung themselves out to dry. Keen to get the last word in and/or to wind me up further, but forgetting that this was in a public forum, that their own staff may well see their tweets, forgetting that one person's 'humour' does not necessarily translate well in <140 characters, they further insulted their staff by tweeting two further even more dismissive and disrespectful terms to describe them. At which point, I withdrew from the conversation and walked away

Why have I shared this story with you? Not to name and shame (although regular followers may well have worked things out for themselves). Not to present myself as a champion of the underdog, nor some kind of 'supermanager'. But as a reflective piece on where and how it can all go wrong on social media, if and when we let our self-belief or passion (there, I've said it!) get ahead of our thinking and our mouths/fingers; how the difference between intent and impact should never be underestimated in public fora like Twitter.

Of course, I may have over-reacted to the whole thing. Maybe it was all tongue in cheek. Maybe I have played right into that individual's hands and shown myself up to be a self-righteous, humourless attention-seeker. I am, however, proud of myself. Proud of standing up for my values and beliefs in a professional and respectful manner. Proud of not being drawn into someone else's game. Proud of intuiting when to walk away.  And proud of not making a public and potentially business-impacting fool of myself.

Unless, of course, I have just done exactly that.

Your thoughts and comments are, as ever, very welcome.

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