HR Unicorns are Real! 4 Questions to Protect Yourself


Unicorns. We know these powerful, magical beings don’t actually exist but oddly enough, we tend to believe in them outside of the realm of fairy tales.

In a recent episode of the Econtalk podcast, Duke University professor Mike Munger referred to “unicorn” politics. The crux of the idea is that (1) while we all readily acknowledge the difference between the ideal politician that we can imagine (the unicorn) and politics as it plays out with real politicians in the real world, we (2) nonetheless go back to believing in those very unicorns when making political decisions or proffering our particular beliefs.

In condensed form, we deny that unicorns exist, then use the unicorns we can imagine when reasoning about how to improve the world, and finish by denying we believe in them.

By itself, that’s a powerful insight about the complex dynamics of constraints, incentives, beliefs, and limited knowledge. Applied to our own careers, it’s downright humbling. The domain of training and development is illustrative.

Real Unicorns

Most of us are fortunate enough to recall a teacher, a trainer, a manager, or a mentor that had a sustained, uniquely positive impact on our lives. Although such exemplary individuals are all real people, they often come to serve as training and development “unicorns” precisely because their impact and abilities were so rare and so special. We do well to remember their lessons because they were so singularly different from all of the rest. We should not, however, assume that all well-intended training initiatives will have an impact comparable to these unicorns.

We know this because experience has revealed our sharply limited ability to change others’ long-term behaviors. When it comes time to improving individual workplace performance though, we make a sudden mental shift back to our unicorns and !*POOF*!, we get a sparkling new training something or other along with assurances that this one is the difference maker.

When we think training and development, we think of our unicorns. What we end up getting is usually something else.

The Enemy is Us

The problem? These initiatives are designed and executed in the real world by real people, for real people…people like me and you who have limited time, varying incentives, and multiple constraints but long memories of unicorns past.

The scale and cost of unicorn thinking is non-trivial. I recently read the 2014 annual report of a Fortune 200 company (which will remain nameless) with over 100,000 employees. Among other notables, this company reported the completion of several MILLION training courses over the course of the year. The ratio worked out to approximately 30 courses per employee.

We can go back and forth about the meaning of “training course”. Suffice it to say, it stretches credulity to suggest that corporate training efforts can meaningfully change more than a handful of performance-related behaviors in a single year, let alone 30.  Something is amiss and I think unicorns are to blame.

4 Questions to Protect Thyself

There is no silver bullet but a few basic questions can go far in protecting us from costly training and development unicorns:

  1. If the training is successful, what will people actually do differently?
  2. How will you know?
  3. How will you measure it and what is your baseline?
  4. What will be done to support and sustain these behavioral changes 6 months out? 12 months out?

Final Thoughts

We are all subject to unicorns in our professional lives. But if we are honest with ourselves, we can at least take practical steps to limit the impact of unicorn thinking. It starts by recognizing that unicorns really do exist, at least in our heads. By attempting to protect ourselves from our own daily unicorn thinking, we can more readily recognize it in other places. In the context of human capital, this will help us move more efficiently and consistently, if less magically, towards the performance outcomes we claim to value.

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