Neuro‐linguistic programming1 (NLP) (not to be confused with natural language processing, which also has the acronym NLP) is an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy. NLP’s creators claim there is a connection between neurological processes (neuro-), language (linguistic) and behavioral patterns learned through experience (programming), and that these can be changed to achieve specific goals in life.
The NLP approach has found some support in the knowledge management (KM) literature. For example, a paper2 in the Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management states that “NLP primarily focuses on individual internal learning and that learning likely leads to the accumulation of HC [human capital] in organisations. In other words, organisational members may find it more effective to enhance their tacit knowledge, both individually and collectively, if they adopt the NLP approach in their day-to-day work.”
However, others have been very critical of NLP. For example, Dave Snowden has described it as cultish pseudoscience, stating that “I’m never sure if I dislike pseudo-science more than crypto-religious movements. In practice they both tend to end up as cults in order to maintain a false belief system. The exemplar of the former, although it is now on the wane, is Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) with its various promises of personal mastery and manipulation.”
So which of these opposing viewpoints is correct, or does the answer lie somewhere in the middle? A recent systematic review3 seeks to shed some light on this question in the context of the psychological outcomes of NLP in organisational settings. The authors advise that as well as being used in healthcare to treat clinical symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and stress, NLP is also used as a coaching method in organisations. Examples of organisations that are using NLP in this way include the BBC, AstraZeneca, and British Telecom.
The systematic review followed the preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta‐analysis (PRISMA)4 guidelines. The literature search identified 952 studies, from which just seven studies comprising only 190 participants met all of the eligibility criteria for in‐depth review and assessment.
Overpromised and undersupported
From the findings of their systematic review, the authors conclude that:
- In general, the benefits of NLP were both overpromised and undersupported.
- The seven selected articles … indicate that NLP can be used to improve a wide range of organizational psychological constructs including work‐related self‐esteem and work‐related stress … However … more methodologically rigorous research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of NLP for workers. More specifically … there is a need for controlled experimental designs featuring follow‐up assessments.
- Thus, in light of the poor quantity and quality of research … claims relating to the effectiveness of NLP in the workplace [should] be interpreted with caution.
- Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0. ↩
- Kong, E. (2012). The potential of neuro-linguistic programming in human capital development. Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management, 10(2), 131-141. ↩
- Kotera, Y., Sheffield, D., & Van Gordon, W. (2019). The applications of neuro‐linguistic programming in organizational settings: A systematic review of psychological outcomes. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 30(1), 101-116. ↩
- Moher, D., Liberati, A., Tetzlaff, J., & Altman, D. G. (2009). Preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses: the PRISMA statement. Annals of internal medicine, 151(4), 264-269. ↩
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