The risks and responsibilities of personal development

Every now and then someone launches a new ‘personal development’ product that is based on providing people with a fairly profound (usually physical) experience, and then getting them to relate it to the ways in which they go through life. On one of the forums that I lead, someone posted an item about one such product. This is my response…

I am very uncomfortable with the use of activities like this as a means of personal development. My concerns revolve around four aspects;

Firstly, I think it takes a considerable leap of faith/imagination to relate what someone experiences in diving, climbing, swimming, parascending, walking on hot coals, horse riding, mountain biking, or whatever, to the day-to-day realities of their work.

Let’s take a simple case – Fred is mildly claustrophobic but he goes along with the idea of a diving experience for personal development. He does it, and inevitably he comes face to face with his fear. He has unconsciously evolved a career in IT operations and works late shifts, both of which have the advantage that they mean he has less contact with other people. He knows he doesn’t like confined spaces, but he hasn’t related this to a general avoidance of, or polarisation in, human relationships. His personal development is limited by this working pattern and the avoidant behaviour. His claustrophobia may well have some relationship to these things, but will he be able to relate it to his career limiting behaviours?

Secondly, the facilitators of these events are rarely, if ever, trained, skilled, and experienced, in dealing with the transition that the individual is experiencing when they perform the activity.

I witnessed a perfect example of this twice this week at mass training events. Because of the nature of the sessions, it was conceivable that the (self selected) participants could be put into a position where they had to confront the unresolved grief of the loss of an infant. The main facilitator of the event recognised this possibility, and chose two of her team of co-facilitators to be ready to help such a person. The recommended action was to remove them from the room and ‘talk to them’. Now, her own lack of experience in this field was highlighted by her choice of those people – two more emotionally controlled individuals it would be hard to find. They were selected because they were women, not because of any counselling skills or specialist experience in working with grieving.

Going back to Fred… He may not even remember that, as a young child, his older brother (whom he revered) smothered him in his bedding one day when they were playing and then made fun of him for crying. Nor may he remember his mother’s dismissive attitude that simply told the two of them to make up and stop being so rough. OK, provided that he is accompanied by an older male instructor, the personal development experience might be the perfect opportunity to explore his responses to such authority figures, and relate that to his claustrophobic defence mechanism, but will the instructor be capable of facilitating such a profound process of personal development?

I’m afraid that my experience has been that many of the individuals who feel called to offer this kind of process, benefitted from it themselves at some stage and then assume that others will too. They do not have the necessary training, skills, or experience to understand, let alone manage, the responses that they provoke.

Related to this is my third concern… It constantly amazes me that HR professionals, will allocate a senior player in their organisation to a ‘coach’ expecting them to work on the individual’s attitudes which are impacting on their performance at work, without any consideration of the coach’s credentials to do so. The focus of the work – the attitudes – needn’t be negative, however the risk lies in the dismantling (or reinforcement) of coping strategies which are reflected in those attitudes. The performance coaching of high flyers is just as much about working with their attitudes. If we are concerned with enhancing performance in one dimension, how will that affect the individual in other aspects of their life? These are dilemmas that a psychotherapist is constantly assessing, but it is generally not even on the radar of many ‘coaches’.

A while back, I pointed out to an HR Director that he would only ever send one of his key players to a top surgeon if they were suffering from a physical ailment, which hurt but wasn’t exactly performance limiting, and yet he was quite happy to send them to an executive coach who had only completed two weekends training to dabble in their psyche in search of a step change in delivery.

Let’s suppose that the ‘experience’ works, and Fred confronts his claustrophobia, is able to expose his anger towards his brother (subsequently projected onto all male authority figures) and returns to work incapable of continuing in his role because his coping strategies have been abruptly dismantled without new ones being developed. Shouldn’t he expect the person facilitating his experience to have suitable psychological safeguards in place to protect him and his livelihood? I think he should and I think a court would too.

Finally, we have to remember that, in a corporate setting, where many of these experiences have been peddled in the past, the self-selection or voluntary participation criteria may be compromised – and often were. Peer pressure, or direct orders, may lead to someone enrolling that didn’t really want to be there. The individuals may be exposing aspects of themselves, to their peers, that those people should have no reason to know about in order for the individual to do their job. And related to this, what about the person who has an unseen disability and so cannot participate? Do we have the right to exclude them from the team-building or personal development activity? I would argue not, and in both situations, I would say that this is creating a good case for constructive dismissal.

I saw a simple example of this in my own career a few years ago. So called, high flyers, were sent on a four day management development programme by the company. On the third evening, the facilitators suggested that the group of participants might take responsibility for organising some entertainment. Some kind of impromptu cabaret was put together. One of the people was a guitarist and he decided to perform songs. He got up on stage, played a couple of numbers and then chose to play something ‘romantic’. He directed his gaze towards one member of the group, as professional singers might often do, as if he was singing to her. After less than a verse she ran from the room screaming and was so traumatized that she couldn’t complete the final day of the course. In the long-term, had she remained with the company, this would have had a serious impact on her career. It transpired that, as a teenager, she had been raped by a singer in a band who had ‘eyed’ her from the stage.

Setting up personal development initiatives of all kinds exposes people to transformation that they don’t necessarily expect but we need to be absolutely sure that we are equipped to deal with the consequences of these things before we do so.

I am happy to comment, or deliver keynote sessions, on any of the topics that I post about.
For media and speaking enquiries, please call me, Graham Wilson, on 07785 222380.

Best wishes

Working behind the scenes, supporting leaders as they achieve things they never dreamt they could
t 07785 222380 |


  1. Graham, I am really enjoying your website and article on PD

  2. Thank you, Nick. I look forward to getting to know each other’s work here and on the BACP forum.

    Best wishes

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