Sprout Labs: Interviews from LearnX - Is your decision making dangerous with Michelle Gibbings -

Michelle Gibbings and Robin Petterd (from Sprout Labs) talk about the future of work and the importance of decision making.

Listen to the podcast here.


Robin: Welcome to the Learning While Working podcast, Michelle. For our audiences, could you just give a quick introduction to yourself, and what you do?

Michelle Gibbings: I help people get fit for the future of work. If you think about the working world, it’s constantly changing, so I provide capability and leadership skills to really help people make sure that they’re making progress and accelerating the activities and things they need to do to make the most of each day.

Robin: So today, go ahead, what are you talking about?

Michelle Gibbings: I am talking about: Is your decision making dangerous?

Robin: Oh, dangerous? That’s really interesting. ‘Cause essentially is in terms of the future of work, one of the things that’s really interesting is AI– is that AI can help people make decisions in very predictable situations. But, there is a set of complexities around decision-making, that some decision making only humans can do.

Michelle Gibbings: Also, what we’re knowing with artificial intelligence is, when you think about it, someone’s got to code information into the robot for the robot to do what it does; and we know that humans have bias and humans are coding bias into those robots. So, you’re having robots that are making bias-based decisions, and through machine learning what they’re doing is they’re reinforcing those biases, so it becomes more important than ever for people to really understand “What’s my bias,” because we all have it and “How does it apply when I’m making decisions?”

Robin: Yes, it’s a really interesting time that we’re in, with this notion of re-thinking decisions and really connecting in different ways. So what do you
mean by dangerous decisions, as well? 

Michelle Gibbings: The danger is we think our brain–which is really the powerhouse of where decisions come from–is infallible. We think our brain sees the world for what it is, and our brain doesn’t. Our brain filters information. It makes decisions based on expectations, on assumptions. It’s looking at what it has done before, and then going, “Well, that’s what I need to do in the future.” Yet, if you’ve got a future that is changing, relying on the past to make a decision for the future isn’t going to necessarily help you.

Robin: When I think about the brain, it’s almost as being a pattern-making machine that knows what it’s seen in the past, but when it’s unusual things, it actually has trouble coping quite often with these decisions.

Michelle Gibbings: Absolutely. And the brain is a pattern machine. I’ve often said to people, “You know, your brain is a meaning-seeking machine.” It’s constantly trying to work out what it needs to do, and it wants to do that in the fastest possible way. So, it uses what’s called a heuristic, which is a mental shortcut, and it goes, “I’ve done this before. I’m going to do this now.”

It’s interesting, even with learning design, quite often I literally sort problems into “Is it one of these, these, or these?” and then occasionally I sit there and go, “Oh, Robin, you’re sorting problems as if there are just three types of solutions in the world. You have to be careful. Because there are other things in the world.”

Michelle Gibbings: Yes. Which is great, because you’re then checking your own bias, checking your own assumptions and expectations; whereas a lot of people don’t do that. And we know that what happens when people get stressed or tired, and they’re busy– they just miss things. And so making sure you’re really clear about “What type of decision I’m making, when I’m making it, and what’s the parameters– the people I need to have around me to help me make better decisions?”

Robin: Especially in Australian culture, where democratic decision making is common, and decisions are made by a group of people and not by a single person.

Michelle Gibbings: Often, that’s not good. So, I often say to people, “You need to be clear when you need to go for consensus and when you need to be clear that it’s you making the decision,” because Andrew Hopkins, who is an academic at ANU–he does a lot of research looking at kind of post-big industrial accidents–and he has found that there’s what’s called “de-individualization.” So, groups make riskier decisions, because what happens is, when the group is making the decision, the individual steps back and says, “I didn’t make the decision, the group made the decision.” Therefore, it’s what he says is like ‘non-responsible decision making’ because no one’s taking accountability for it.

Robin: So, from a learning point of view, how are you helping people make better decisions? What sort of training experiences, what sort of learning designs are you working with to actually make this happen?

Michelle Gibbings: The key part is for people to realise it’s a competency. Like any competency, it can be learned, it can be refined, it can be enhanced. Yet, if you look at a lot of development programmes, they might focus on what it means to be a leader. They might focus on mindset; they might focus on emotional intelligence, but very rarely do you see a lot of leadership programmes saying, “How do we equip these leaders to make better decisions?” So, that’s where I’m focusing.

Robin: This is all so interesting. I’m not an expert on leadership development courses, but I occasionally drop into them. I have an interest in what is happening in terms of learning design. Partly because the leadership development programme I went through incorporated this and also it was one of the most transformational experiences I’ve ever done.

Michelle Gibbings: Yes.

Robin: It’s also slightly frustrating at the same time. Quite often they talk about, what leadership is but then not actually giving people the skills to lead.

Michelle Gibbings: Yes.

Robin: Which is interesting.

Michelle Gibbings: It’s the theory versus the practical, and I always say to people– you know, when people work with me that’s one of the reasons why they love what I do, is because I had 25 years in corporate before I set my business up. I’ve got the theory, I understand the science that sits behind all of this. But, it’s the practical application, because if you can’t practically apply the learning, it’s meaningless.

Robin: A lot of your learning experiences, I presume, have become chances to practise decision making.

Michelle Gibbings: Absolutely, it’s understanding. For me, when I [ask] people, “How do you make a better decision?” I say, “Look at the mindset, the process, and look at the environment; you need all three pillars There are elements for each of those, and there’s ways to test how you’re using that.” So, it has to be experiential, because it’s in the experience that people then understand, “Where are the gaps? What are the trade-offs that I’ve made? What are the traps that I’ve fallen into, and what will I do differently next time?”

Robin: Do you take a case based approach or a project based approach to this?

Michelle Gibbings: Well, it depends on the client.

Robin: Essentially, not all clients and organisations can work on projects, and that becomes a little bit difficult.

Michelle Gibbings: Yes. I’ve very much come from the philosophy that when you’re working with people, you need to understand their circumstance and the environment, and then you tailor what the learning programme is to fit their needs, rather than going, “Here’s something that I created earlier, therefore, I’m gonna retrofit it to fit you.”

Robin: Yes, okay so, sort of broad question, what do you think is the biggest trend that’s happening in leadership training at the moment, Michelle?

Michelle Gibbings: What’s the biggest trend? Oh, boy. I still think organisations try and bite off sometimes a bit too much, in terms of: focus on one competency, really nail it, and then move onto something else. Yes, there’s this continuous move to digital platforms, but even with digital platforms and gamification, and all that kind of stuff, there’s still gonna be an experience that sits behind it. How do you take it back and make it meaningful in the workplace? I still see that as the biggest challenge in any organisation that I’m working in. We have these amazing experiences, people love the learning, but it doesn’t lead to traction back in the environment, unless something is shifting and there’s reinforcement in the environment that they’re working in.

Robin: This is the classic problem around learning transfer. Actually taking a learning experience and making it really happen back in the  workplace. And also it’s a nice general wisdom, that the way to do it in an organisation is to take on less.

Michelle Gibbings: I also think it’s also saying to people, “Stop waiting for your organisation to develop you. Actually, it’s not their responsibility, it’s yours.” I always say to people, “Fall in love with learning. There is so much learning out there that is free. Look, if you want the certification, get it, but there’s also, just– love knowledge. Be  inquisitive, get curious about stuff, find stuff that you’re interested in, seek it out and just have fun with it, rather than only learning because you feel like you have to.”

Robin: Yes, we’re working with a fairly bureaucratic organisation at the moment to design an induction programme. They actually want their people being able to think a bit more outside of the box. They’re actually doing a whole “We don’t have to be bureaucratic” thing. With the section of induction on performance plans, and development plans, that whole thing is called “Driving Your Own Development,” and putting the emphasis back on the individual to drive their learning, rather than the organisation. It’s a fantastic shift that’s happening as the future of learning is happening, the future of work is happening, we have to become more self directive.

Michelle Gibbings: Exactly, and it plays into the changing nature of the workplace and relationship between employer and employee. If you’re moving to a much more flexible working environment, if you’re moving to an environment where– you know the whole gig economy, and you move from project to project, the employer isn’t going to actually develop you because it’s a project role. They’re expecting you to come to that role with all the skills they need for you to be able to do the job. Yes, you’ll learn on the job, but you’re required to have those skills before you step foot into the organisation.

Robin: It just shifts some of the equations to–

Michelle Gibbings: It does, it does. It heightens the emphasis on why learning is so important.

Robin: Cool. Michelle, this has been a great conversation. If anyone is listening and they wanted to find out more about what you do or get in contact, what’s a really good call to action?

Michelle Gibbings: The best thing to do is to go onto my website, which is michellegibbings.com. I’ve got a couple of books that I’ve written, so there’s one which is called
Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work and the other one is Career Leap: How to Reinvent and Liberate Your Career. Both those books are available through all major bookstores and you can buy them on Amazon, Booktopia, or you can buy them off my website, as well.

Robin: Thank you very much.

Michelle Gibbings: My pleasure.