10 ways to deal with stakeholders’ beliefs in learning

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

Before we dive in here, we need to give some credit to the person who inspired our approach and the style of this blog: Japke-D Bouma (Twitter handle: @japked). She’s a Dutch journalist who writes a regular column in NRC (a Dutch newspaper) on baffling jargon, work, and career. We’re both fans of her!


Stakeholders[1]! The people we need, love, sometimes love to hate, and who sometimes also drive us bonkers. We want to please them, make them happy, have them love us. We want to go out of our way to delight them. After all, they’re our customers. But man! They can sometimes really get in the way when it comes to actually designing useful learning experiences[2] so that people actually can do their jobs better.

Of course, we don’t mean their reality – urgency, budget, limited resources, data restrictions – that’s simply part of business as usual. We mean when they’re: solutions focused (they know the answer before asking the question), content focused (they know exactly what needs to be taught and learnt), or shiny-object focused.

Here’s a slide that Mirjam has used multiple times in presentations when discussing stakeholder challenges (oops, another ‘jeukwoord’).

Solutions focused, content focused…

Sometimes they’re also ‘shiny object focused’… they want solutions that look good, feel good, or at least follow the latest trends.

But far and foremost, it’s their beliefs that drive us up the wall.

A while ago, Mirjam received a message in her LinkedIn Inbox (slightly reworded to ‘anonymise’):

I’m in my first L&D role, and I struggle to debunk myths or non-science based models. My boss loves learning styles, the learning pyramid, the 70:20:10 model, and so forth. My boss has 20+ years of experience in training, and has no doubt that all these models/styles work. My boss is eager for me to design learning interventions using these models. I’m really not sure what’s the best way to have a conversation with my boss about this, share what really matters in learning without being seen as a threat. I just want to do something that has real impact on people. Any advice?

Don’t we all have stakeholders – including bosses! – like this? We know we do! Our expertise isn’t always taken seriously – and we’re not the only ones:

That’s why both of us called out for help on LinkedIn and Twitter to ask our network for advice. We hoped that a bit of ‘crowd sourcing’ would provide ideas that we could all benefit from!

That’s why both of us called out for help on LinkedIn and Twitter to ask our network for advice. We hoped that a bit of ‘crowd sourcing’ would provide ideas that we could all benefit from!

Well, it worked. We received almost 150 responses which we could place in roughly 10 categories as to how you can try to tackle your stakeholder (‘s beliefs, including myths 🙂). So, here we go!

1. Patiently share and explain

About 20% of you believe in reason and –  which warms our hearts – in research! Within this group, some take the direct and rational route and send the stakeholders articles debunking the myth, or simply explain that the current research doesn’t support their beliefs. Some think that only sharing or explaining that research doesn’t support a stakeholders’ beliefs isn’t enough. We also need to provide alternatives and explain better ways. Another idea is to send or explain research as in “I read something very interesting yesterday and it made me think of our discussion”, or – even more subtle – share the research without referring whatsoever to the stakeholders’ beliefs and see if they pick up on it. Sneaky! One of you even plays a pretend game here. “I send an article explaining the research and then say that I am also disappointed to find out that their belief doesn’t stick.” Very creative indeed.

The die-hard learning professionals amongst you suggest to offer… training! You trust experts like Paul or Donald Clark to train you stakeholder so as to solve this matter once and for all! All Paul can say to this is: From your mouth to god’s ears.

2. Testing

A small proportion of you – around 5% – go for experimentation in the form of A/B testing or pilot projects. One of you seems to enjoy the competition! “Try to negotiate a nice experiment out of this situation: let’s put your approach against mine and do a good analysis on real results. Let the data decide.” Brave!

3. Be pragmatic

Around 10% of you seem to be dyed-in-the-wool professionals who have learned their lesson. You suggest a pragmatic approach. Sharing what some ‘top organisations’ are doing is what one of you recommends (this person doesn’t mention if it matters whether what they do must have any quality?). Here’s one from a top pragmatist – or opportunist even? – “You can possibly work around the boss’s requirements, as has been done for years, for example, with the learning styles scam: Just put in some blah-blah-blah up front about learning styles, maybe in a design document, then design a solution that really works”. This person isn’t  the only one to give in and use buzzwords to make your stakeholders feel good and then try to ignore the models in the actual work and deliver something good. Others take it from a different angle and suggest to “objectively address what the scope of development of that will be for time and budget- that usually makes them back off a bit.”

Or how about asking a simple question? “Which do you think is the best learning model? What makes X better than Y (e.g. Kolb vs Barbe)? There seems to be a lot of conflicting information out there, how do you figure out which is right?” Can do wonders, according to some of you! Others suggest to be more direct and “just flat out tell them privately, first, that those [learning styles] aren’t a thing, then provide resources. If they reject it, I say something in a group meeting, so they have to defend their position to all the people that already know differently.” Lots to experiment with within a pragmatic approach!

4. Be diplomatic

Diplomacy is another option (around 20% of you suggest this). You suggest to carefully consider how we roll as human beings. Don’t challenge, choose your battles, be kind, treat them with kid gloves, tiptoe around them, use clever influencing (marketing!) strategies, and so forth.

“Be diplomatic and compose yourself in debates.” “The best approach is a genuinely open one … seek to influence as well as learn, that’s how to avoid being a threat.” “Make it real and be kind in offering other viewpoint that are based on their reality.” Some of you also see this soft approach as the most likely to be effective, but you also point out that it’s going to take a lot of patience, frustration, and disappointment. Sigh…

5. Peel the onion

A bit in line with the pragmatics and diplomats as in, focused on reality, is the group that suggests that we always need to peel the onion (around 5%). Good old root cause analysis. Figure out what it’s really about. “While the narrative presents itself as the issue, there is often something else going on.” Explore the ‘why’ behind your stakeholders’ beliefs, discover their underlying challenges. Getting to the root of things will benefit your working relationship, so we’re told. 

6. Be a goody two-shoes

A very small percentage (around 2%) – luckily, we dare to say! – chooses to be goody two-shoes and doesn’t attempt to deal with the stakeholder challenge at all. “If no one asks my opinion, I try to stay silent.” “If my stakeholders ask for my opinion, I will politely answer them, but I don’t want to hurt their feelings.” One person even explains why you should always do as you’re told: “Be good at what you are good at, and try to learn more about why others believe the way they do. After all, that person is the one who signs your time sheet and writes your annual appraisal. It doesn’t take much effort to realise who is going to win at the end!”

7. Kick their butts

Less than 5% have no empathy for stakeholders whatsoever. “Why wouldn’t you hurt your stakeholders?”, asks someone. Someone else even states that people who are so easily hurt and prefer to not be called out on their responsibilities, shouldn’t be in a senior leadership position. Well, we don’t disagree 🙂.

8. Despair

Ten percent of you are cynics and suggest that there’s nothing left but to despair. “It’s quite charitable of you to assume they’re open to being convinced”, says one of you, while another says “propose to go to Disneyland as an alternative: there you can find magic!” Basically, you claim it’s hopeless: “You can’t afford to go chasing moonbeams in organisations immune to change.” “The egos of bosses blind them from seeing clearly. We can’t help but suffer such people.” “I’ve given up on this a long time ago.” And a philosophical cynic amongst you asks “…How can someone with little or no knowledge of learning get to the top like this?” Very deep indeed.

9. Get your sh*t together

About 10% of you are above all this whining. Some of you are convinced that you’re different than the rest. You’re saying that you’ve got this! “If I was in this situation, I would design a learning solution to the best possible satisfaction of the business, based on design principles I find best for that purpose.” “As long as you define the objectives and measure the results, there should be no problem using any model.” It’s as simple as that apparently. Some of you even gave us a scolding, telling us to stop whining: “You have to work out how to influence senior stakeholders. I find moaning about such people weakens your chances of influence because of what moaning to others does for you.” Or, telling us that, if we’re struggling with our stakeholders sometimes, we might not belong… “I genuinely would ask [you] to reflect on your influencing skills. If you work in sales there’s no way you can complain that the customers just don’t understand.” So much for some genuine peer advice!

And last but not least, there’s one person in this category who knows better than anyone else, suggesting that we shouldn’t challenge our stakeholders on myths: “In the same way we refer to these as myths with no value, it is also of no value to just dismiss these models, approaches, and learning myths completely. As with many stereotypes, they are frequently based on something real.” Yes, and pigs fly and solid objects fall up!

10. Run!

Five of you get the ‘courage’ award. You suggest to simply find a different job. This is a funny (and great!) one: “You can declare yourself ASAP, when you first walk in the door. But then maybe they’ll show you the door. And then you can seek happiness elsewhere. Which can be considered a win IMO.” An argument you can’t win.

A big THANK YOU to all for your approaches to dealing with this problem. Plenty to play with! What works best when? Let us know how you’re doing! 🙂


[1] Japke-d. Bouma would probably call this – ‘stakeholder’ – a ‘jeukwoord’; literally ‘itch-word’, a (buzz)word that makes you itch.

[2] She would probably also call ‘learning experience’ an itch-word.


5 thoughts on “10 ways to deal with stakeholders’ beliefs in learning

  1. Heika says:

    Ha! Having spent a good 6 hours of my today in a series of – yes – stakeholder engagement sessions, I enjoyed reading this post.
    Have tried many if the mentioned approaches. Missing just one: that smug smile we just can‘t help when our friend the stakeholder positions that all-too-predictable request for [fill in any of the mentioned myths or learning trends]. And the feeling of omniscience when you think: „Why did I see that coming?“

    Liked by 1 person

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