Training that forms new habits - that would make a change!

One of the great failings of training in organisations is that far too often it doesn’t lead to the behavioural change that is either desired or required. For anyone who has been around L&D for any length of time, this is hardly a revolutionary statement. So what has been the typical organisational response? Often, it has been to change the training. Find the latest new technique and try that. For others, it has been change the medium. E-learning was trumpeted as the way to go. Fine for knowledge transfer but not for building skill or engendering behavioural change. Now short sharp bite-sized chunks of learning delivered virtually or online is all the rage. While this certainly can provide significant advantages – for example, enabling people to access learning on demand and in more manageable time slots – there is a much bigger issue at play here that holds the key to whether investment in behavioural change pays off or not.

These new approaches and formats all focus on changing the external learning environment when what really holds the key is the mindset of the people expected to change. Human beings are creatures of habit. We do most of what we do out of habit. Therefore if we want to see sustained changes in behaviour over time, we need to grapple with the challenge of how new habits are formed.  

Let’s start by exploring what makes people change behaviour. Typically it requires the following three beliefs to be satisfied in the mind of the learner:

  1. They believe what they need to do differently is important.

  2. They believe there is something in it for them to change.

  3. They believe they can do what is being asked to do without any negative impact.

Let’s take each of these in turn:

They believe what they need to do differently is important – There are a number of ways of building this belief – Management need to lead by example. They need to sponsor and champion the change. They need to play an active role in embedding the change – for example, by coaching, regularly checking in on progress and making the desired change part of their ongoing management meetings and discussions. In addition, the change needs to be encapsulated in associated systems, processes and structures that people use every day. These all send messages to the learner that what is being asked is important, part of the ‘furniture’ and here to stay.

They believe there is something in it for them to change – This is often either overlooked or taken for granted. “We are investing in training for you, it’s obvious how it will help”. In many cases this might be true. However, in order to get people to change long ingrained behaviours or habits, logic rarely does the trick. Sure, you can mandate change and while that may provide an initial jolt of activity, it typically doesn’t last and the standards often slip. Motivation is key to habit forming. Do people see how what they are being asked to do will benefit them day to day? One way to help in this regard is to show them how time in development will advance not only their skill but also current live projects, relationships, pieces of work or opportunities they are working on. Give them a chance to bring these types of scenarios to the development environment rather than fictitious role-plays or case studies. This tangible, clear link to real life success provides more impetus, rationale and motivation to fully engage. Behavioural change initiatives that are full of tools, templates and theoretical models can sometimes lose this connection to day to day benefit and reality.

They believe they can do what is being asked to do without any negative impact  on them – This largely comes down to confidence. However, the comfort zone is very powerful and confidence in doing something new doesn’t come easily. Do I believe I can do it? Will it harm my existing performance? Will I potentially look bad in front of customers or colleagues if I try something different and it doesn’t go well? Confidence requires Skill. Skill requires practice. Practice needs to be a habit and training programmes need to provide enough deliberate and structured practice opportunities over a period of time to build habits. These opportunities need to be easy to fit into operational schedules and routines. As mentioned above, building the desired new behaviours into the systems and processes people use day to day also increases the likelihood of regular practice and adoption.  

So next time you are considering investing money in changing behaviours and improving performance, don’t just consider the content, tools and methodology. Think about and consider what you are putting in place that will enable people to repeatedly, consistently and willingly change their existing behaviours and habits.