What's the evidence for... neuro-linguistic programming?

Sometimes HR professionals need to ask themselves why they use a particular process. Rob Briner examines the evidence behind NLP

Here’s a question. What’s your first thought when you see the term neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)? Is it ‘I am an NLP master practitioner/did some NLP training and think it’s great’? Or perhaps it’s ‘I went on an NLP course once/have read about it and it seems to be a cult based on pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo’? Or even ‘I’ve heard of it but not too sure what it is – is it like neuroscience and should I take a course’?

Whatever you think about NLP, you may be wondering what it’s got to do with HR. It’s certainly not a core HR practice, but it does raise some key issues around what it means to be an evidence-based HR practitioner and the importance of scrutinising evidence for claims.

What’s the problem it aims to fix?

The aim of NLP is not to fix any particular problem but, it seems, every problem. Which is itself a problem because magic wands are found only in fairy tales. NLP practitioners as a whole make a wide range of very strong claims for the impact of NLP interventions; not only on things like performance, relationships, wellbeing, and communication, but also in curing medical conditions such as phobias (in an hour), OCD, dyslexia, depression and cancer. Many individual practitioners make more limited claims for NLP, but they are clear and strong claims nonetheless.

What is it?

This is where it gets really tricky. NLP is often described as a ragbag of techniques, some similar to those used in counselling and psychotherapy – including modelling, reframing, and imagining and reacting to the future. Practitioners themselves do not have shared views about what NLP is and what NLP is not, and there is no single accreditation or certification body.

Does it work?

I was recently involved in a debate with a leading NLP trainer. My preparation included a search of the scientific literature, an appeal for good evidence to NLP practitioners on Twitter and LinkedIn, and a discussion with the only academics (two) who have talked about NLP in a business context. So what was I looking for and what did I find?

To spread the net as widely as possible, I searched for good quality evidence about any technique described as NLP used to achieve any outcome. But what counts as good quality evidence?

All NLP practitioners claim that the techniques they use produce tangible and important outcomes. So, given such claims, what constitutes good quality evidence is quite straightforward. It is findings from studies that measure the outcome before and after the NLP intervention and compares this group with a control group and/or some other intervention. This is precisely what you’d do to examine the effectiveness of almost any intervention, such as training, coaching, counselling or a diet regime. This is basic stuff. Nothing fancy or complicated.

So what did I find? Firstly I could find no good quality evidence in the scientific literature about the efficacy (or otherwise) of any NLP technique for any outcome. Second, my online appeal to NLP practitioners produced no good evidence (but several anecdotes). Third, my discussion with the academics confirmed the absence of published evidence. This doesn’t conclusively mean that NLP is not effective. It means we just don’t know either way.

But what about my opponent in the debate? Did this leading NLP trainer have good evidence to demonstrate the value of the product he sells? In my view he did not. But this wasn’t surprising. The only type of evidence on his website was testimonials, which are very bad, if not the lowest possible, quality evidence. I am convinced he is sincere in his beliefs and means well. But that is not enough.

The burden of proof is always on those who make claims for what they do. An evidence-based HR practitioner should demand to see the evidence for the claims made by those selling or recommending techniques. If there is nothing but anecdotes and testimonials such an HR practitioner should think very carefully indeed about adopting that technique. They might also start to wonder why some of their HR colleagues proudly list their accreditation to practice that technique on their LinkedIn profile. I know I would.