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How to Change Behavior and Improve Performance —The Cold, Hard Facts

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Image License: Author-owned

Organizations that care about improving employee performance often turn to training. Here’s what experts say about the effectiveness of even world-class programs: 80%-90% of the training delivered in the U.S. fails to change behavior. This shocking shortfall means that a lot of well-intentioned businesses are wasting a lot of money.

It’s not the fault of the programs. They fail because organizations don’t reinforce what is taught in the classroom. This failure to provide ongoing coaching, encouragement, feedback and accountability until the desired behaviors are ingrained as work habits happens because managers don’t understand the facts behind what it takes to improve skills and performance.

It starts in the brain. All employee behavior, skills and performance—are triggered by circuits in the brain.

Habits rule. In a typical fast- paced workplace, people react out of habit. They rarely have the time to make a conscious choice—to pause, reflect on a new approach learned in training, and then decide to try it instead of going with their old, ingrained patterns.

Habits are hard-wired. Habits are nothing more than behavior patterns triggered by deeply ingrained wiring in the brain. By wiring, I mean brain cells that have established permanent connections, forming circuits that trigger the observable behavior. This wiring enables us to do what we need to do comfortably and efficiently, without having to think about it.

The wiring is permanent. These neural pathways are physical connections, meaning they’re permanent. Only after years of disuse will a circuit start to atrophy.

The goal of training is to improve/change the habit. The return on investment leaders want is changed behavior. Knowing what to do isn’t the same as being able to do it. They want people performing better.

To change a habit you need to create a new, improved one. It’s not about “unlearning.” It’s about “rewiring.” The wiring for the old habit remains in the brain. What happens is that a new, improved circuit is establishing alongside the old one. Once a new habit is established, because it gets better results, it will be used more often than the old one. Ideally, the old habit will eventually fall into disuse.

Only the brain cells that fire together will wire together. Habits get wired after a behavior pattern is repeated over and over again. When brain cells involved in the action fire, they stimulate connector fibers called dendrites to grow and connect with each other. There’s never enough time in the classroom for this to happen. The repetitions have to happen In the workplace. Training provides an excellent introduction to the desired behavior. It can teach people what to do, but only repeated application in the real world will stimulate the brain cells to connect with each other. You gotta do the reps.

The “crunch point.” Like other behavior change efforts, this one is often derailed. Behavior change is hard without support. At first, a well-intentioned individual will be motivated to try what was learned in training. But 100% success never happens. At first, the new approach feels awkward. The attempts aren’t very effective. Since the new pattern isn’t yet an ingrained habit, the old habit kicks in. Early in the process of ingraining a new habit, the low success rate can be very discouraging. I call this the “crunch point,” because it’s when most people conclude they can’t do it and give up.

What’s needed is reinforcement. Like changing any behavior pattern, coaching, support encouragement, feedback, and accountability are needed.  Not just once, but continuously over time. So learners can push past the crunch point and ultimately create comfortable, automatic work habits.

There’s more to strong performance than ingraining technical and business skills. People skills and personal strengths also affect performance. People skills involve how people interact with each other.  If people don’t deal with each other effectively, even improved performance in a technical or business area won’t produce the desired result. Personal strengths involve behavior patterns such as initiative, effort, judgment, perseverance, integrity and many more. Work in the real world is challenging. Adverse situations pop up all the time. If employees don’t engage personal strengths to work though the challenges, once again even improved performance in a technical or business area won’t produce the desired result. Because of their powerful effect on all types of performance, I refer to people skills and personal strengths as “core strengths.”

The bottom line: organizations that are seriously committed to improving technical and business performance need to invest in three things:

  • Long-term follow-up reinforcement of skills learned in training
  • Training programs to develop stronger people skills
  • Coaching programs for building personal strengths

Are organizations providing this kind of follow-up support? Actually, it almost never happens. But it needs to happen. It can happen. Managers need to be aware of the facts I’ve outlined above. I’ve written about these issues and how to address them in more detail in the ebook, The Dark Secret of HRD, available as a free download at www.strongforperformance.com

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About dennycoates

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Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D. has been CEO of Performance Support Systems since 1987. He is the author of several books and hundreds of articles related to the brain, learning, people skills, personal strengths and workplace performance. He’s the creator of 20/20 Insight, an online performance feedback system, used worldwide by over a million people. He’s also the creator of Strong for Performance, an online virtual coaching system for long-term reinforcement of skills, improving people skills and building personal strengths.
  • Hi Denny

    good message and one that needs constant reinforcement.

    One point though – you say that ‘It’s not the fault of the programs.’ And I agree, however I do think that those of us who consider ourselves to be professional training, L& D and/or organisational change specialists must own our responsibility for the problem.

    What I mean is that we have every opportunity, when asked to ‘do some training’, to ensure our clients appreciate the context, understand their crucial role and accept their accountability for making the desired change happen.

    And what happens if they don’t. Do we walk away? Do we refuse to run the training until they do? Or do we still do the training and take the money? It can be a tough call to marry our ideals with the everyday reality of making a living…

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