I recently sent a freedom of information request to every local authority in England asking how many employees they had sent on neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) courses in the past three years, and how much it had cost. The results reveal that NLP training is still widespread in local government, with some local authorities spending thousands every year on it.
First some background. NLP is best described as a set of communication “tools and techniques” that first emerged in the 1970s with a book called The Structure of Magic I by the movement’s founders Richard Bandler and John Grinder. Its fundamental concept is the primary representation system (PRS), the “internal map” which supposedly determines our actions and emotions.
The theory is that there are five basic modes of interpreting and relating to the world: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory and gustatory. If you’re a visual person you tend to think in images and use visual metaphors, whereas those with an auditory PRS talk to themselves and learn by listening.
Besides these behavioural clues, we can supposedly tell which PRS a person has by observing their eye movement – a visual person looks up to the left, an auditory person sideways, and so on.
Once you’ve deduced another person’s PRS, the theory goes, you can “tune in” to them by adjusting your own language and behaviour to reflect theirs. The result is that the other person will be more easily influenced or manipulated.
NLP’s roots are in psychotherapy and counselling but, having met with scepticism from healthcare professionals, it moved into the self-help and management training sectors, where it expanded rapidly. It’s not hard to see why – NLP’s claims must be enormously attractive to managers seeking to control recalcitrant staff, or salespeople trying to close a deal.
It’s a nice idea, but it simply doesn’t stand up. The PRS theory was discredited as far back as the 1980s (Michael Heap’s work is invaluable here) and the industry hasn’t managed to provide any compelling evidence since. Put simply, NLP has nothing to do with neurology or linguistics – at best it’s psychobabble, at worst a “shameful, fraudulent cult”. (See Martin Parkinson’s excellent Skeptic article from 2003 for a more detailed explanation – and debunking – of NLP.)
But it seems our local authority HR managers haven’t caught up. At least 55 local authorities have put employees on NLP courses in the last three years. Among the worst offenders are Suffolk County Council, which has trained 59 staff in NLP since 2009, Stockport Council (88), Coventry City Council (114) and Lancashire County Council (180).
A mitigating factor (perhaps) is that most of these councils have in-house NLP “master practitioners” who lead the training for their colleagues, so it’s more a case of wasted time and energy rather than money – although there’s a moral question of whether publicly-funded authorities should be actively promoting non-evidence based techniques.
Of those councils that did pay external trainers, there’s a wide variation in the cost of training. Coventry County Council managed to train 114 of its staff for just £10 per head, whereas City of Stoke-on-Trent paid more than £1,500 each for nine employees to be trained in NLP. Worcestershire City Council spent over £33,000 training 30 people as part of its “coaching referral programme”, while Melton Borough Council paid a staggering £2,400 to train one person. (Download the full results.)
These aren’t huge amounts of money, but in these straightened times can we really afford to fritter away ever-shrinking training budgets on pseudoscience? Why not just throw a party for council staff? It would do more for staff morale and industrial relations than tuning in to a kinaesthetic PRS ever will.