Designing Training Programs to Change Workplace Behaviors: 3 Practical Lessons

July 27, 2018 7:44 AM | Lovina Akowuah (Administrator)

Written by SEWI-ATD Guest Blogger, Colin J Hahn, Director of Talent Development  for Leadership Ecademy.

One of the greatest challenges that L&D professionals face is creating programs that cause our participants to change their behaviors. We have direct control over what happens in our classrooms, so we know that we can deliver knowledge. But, having participants translate that knowledge into new behaviors, and then adopting those new behaviors in the workplace, is something that we can only influence indirectly.

Many L&D professionals struggle to measure behavioral change—level 3 in the Kirkpatrick model of training evaluation. But, the more fundamental problem is that causing behavioral change is hard. A typical estimate is that only 30-40% of learners implement soft skill behaviors they learn in training, forming what is known as the “transfer gap.” Because the gap is so wide, improving the rate of behavioral change is one of the highest leverage improvements that we can make to our training programs.

L&D professionals have long known how important it is to change behaviors, but we are under increasing pressure to deliver on that goal. Compared to five years ago, business leaders more frequently stress the need for employees to adapt, innovate, and embrace rapid change. With a tightening labor market, employers are under pressure to grow the skills of their workforce on the job.

Both of these trends are increasing the stakes for L&D professionals. If we are successful at changing behaviors, we can have a dramatic impact on business results. But, if we can’t deliver, then our budgets can be on the chopping block as companies look to trim services that don’t contribute to the bottom line.

At Leadership Ecademy, we realized that reliably changing behavior is a critical outcome for talent development, and we focused on developing techniques that consistently produced positive behavioral changes in the workplace. We identified three primary reasons why training programs fail to change behaviors. By targeting those three challenges, we achieved a 93% success rate in our participants demonstrating behavioral changes as a result of our training.

Challenge #1: Conducting fire talks vs fire drills

One of my mentors, Gary Klugiewicz, frequently says, “There’s a reason we conduct fire drills and not fire talks.” When you are under stress, you don’t think clearly, you experience tunnel vision, and your motor skills are impaired. During a fire is the worst possible time to try a psychomotor skill for the first time, which is why it is so important to practice when the stakes are low. When you are trying to walk out of the correct exit for a fire—or when temperatures are rising between team members and you’re trying to remember the next step in a de-escalation sequence—you are liable to make mistakes unless you’ve rehearsed the skill beforehand.

Most training and development programs are more fire talk than fire drill. The participants will spend most of their time listening to the facilitator present or discussing the topic in small groups. As L&D professionals, we proudly point to the interactive elements of our sessions: role plays, simulations, and small group discussions. But, it’s rare for these activities to make up more than 30% of our training time. Even when we do incorporate non-lecture activities, they often serve the role of content delivery rather than practice and implementation.

Below are some of the techniques we adopted in order to conduct more fire drills.

1. Plan the time. If we truly believe that practice is a priority, then the training schedule should reflect that. At Leadership Ecademy, we set an expectation that 50% of classroom time should be devoted to practice. Content delivery, discussion, and housekeeping tasks all had to fit within the remaining 50%.

2. Set outcomes for class activities. We defined specific outcomes for each component of our training sessions. We found that group discussions benefited tremendously from that level of detail. Before, a typical discussion prompt might sound like, “Can you think of other trust-building behaviors?” It was common for discussions to meander; while the discussions were intellectually stimulating, they had little practical impact. When we forced ourselves to define outcomes for a discussion (e.g., participants will identify examples of trust-building behaviors from their own experience), we noted that the discussions were more focused, the quality of the discussions improved, and we were able to wrap up the discussions sooner.

3. Create more “at bats.” When we first conducted role plays, we spent close to five minutes going through a scenario and then debriefing it. A lot of that time was low-impact, as participants were improvising further and further away from the core skill. We reformulated the activity with a tighter script and more concise directions, and we reduced the time to run through the role play to 30 seconds. In that same five minute period, we were able to get six practice attempts and a debrief. When the participants had more at bats, their fluency increased and they felt more comfortable with the skill. As a bonus, the increased pace also kept the participants more engaged in the class.

Challenge #2: Adapting to the situational snowflake

One of the fundamental realities of behavioral change is that no two situations are the same. Like the proverbial snowflakes, there are always differences between the scenarios we practice in class and the situations our participants face back at the workplace.

These differences pose significant barriers for participants attempting to use their new skills. When the participants can’t figure out how to work through the unique elements of their situation, they are much less likely to attempt the skill—let alone succeed. In one of our conflict management classes, for instance, one participant was paralyzed because her conflict was with her boss, and none of our examples explicitly showed how to adjust for the power differential in that situation. Another participant struggled to apply the technique of establishing a mutual purpose because his situation was extremely challenging (he was required to fire someone the week before Christmas, and there was no flexibility in the timeline because of other organizational constraints).

The snowflake syndrome—when a participant sees their situation as unique and therefore struggles to apply the skill—is a common reason why training doesn’t result in behavioral change. Being able to adapt a skill to novel circumstances requires a high level of proficiency. By definition, someone who is learning a new skill lacks that level of proficiency. While a beginner can stick to a script relatively well, it’s easy for them to get thrown off by unique situational details precisely because they haven’t internalized the skill to the point where they have mastered the general principles and can adapt those principles to meet the demands of the moment.

Our Team at Leadership Ecademy spent a lot of time working on how to overcome the snowflake syndrome. Some of the techniques we used included:

1. Present extreme examples. We found that many adaptation barriers stemmed from a participant’s perception that their situation was more challenging than anything we had discussed. So, we began to incorporate more extreme examples into our case studies in order to show the techniques under more difficult circumstances. For instance, we used a case study that pitted police officers charged with enforcing protest ordinances against Occupy Wall Street protesters who were willing to be arrested as an illustration of how to find a mutual purpose in a discussion.

2. Practice adapting. Sometimes participants just need to put some thought into how a skill would work in their situation. We built practice time for participants to adapt the skill by identifying what could work without change and what elements of the situation needed to be addressed in a different manner. We found pair sharing and small group formats to work well for this component of training.

3. Coach the adaptation. We developed a training model in which participants worked one-on-one with a coach to implement their skills, and one of the biggest benefits to this approach was that the coach could work with their participant on how to adapt the skill. Providing coaches to all your training participants may be too much of an ask, but consider if there are ways that you can set up participants with mentors or peer role models to provide some of that individualized support.

Challenge #3: Getting lost in the whirlwind

In The 4 Disciplines of Execution, Chris McChesney introduces the concept of the whirlwind as all the everyday stuff that comes up and distracts people from making change stick. We found this concept captured the experience of many of our training participants. We knew that participants left our classroom excited about what they had learned and eager to put their skills to use. But, when they got back to their desk, the whirlwind of daily activity undercut their efforts.

For some participants, just seeing their overflowing inbox was enough to convince them that they didn’t have time to try the new behaviors. Other participants would try once or twice, but if they struggled—which they usually did, because these were new skills—they retreated to their old practices since they at least knew what to expect. Several participants described giving up in frustration because their manager didn’t know what they had learned and couldn’t support them.

Overcoming the whirlwind required us to think about training as a method of change management. It wasn’t enough for us to have a solution. We needed to support that solution so that others were convinced to implement it.

To get that support, we worked with decision-makers and influencers within our clients’ organizations. There was no magic bullet that solved this challenge. But, we found that the following behaviors made a difference in helping our training transfer to the workplace:

1. Action plans instead of takeaways. We eliminated the end-of-day sharing about what participants would take away from the class because we realized those ideas didn’t translate to behaviors. Instead, we used the time to have participants write an action plan for what they would do as a result of the training.

2. Prepare for success. We also gave the participants time to plan how they would prepare for their action plan. We used techniques like identifying critical moments and vital behaviors to make the action plan concrete, as well as gathering support resources such as scripts or peer accountability partners.

3. Follow up and create accountability. Because our participants worked one-on-one with a coach, we had our coaches follow up with their participants after a few weeks to debrief their action plan results. If you can’t conduct a coaching call with each participant, consider following up with email reminders, using peer groups to review progress, or debriefing action plans in a future face-to-face setting.

4. Transfer to the manager. The participant’s manager will have more influence on what people do in the office than your training facilitator, so bring the manager into the loop. We emailed the managers before the class to set their expectations of what participants would be able to do afterwards. We encouraged participants to share what they learned with their managers and provided conversational templates so the participants could ask for assignments that would enable them to continue practicing their new skills, and we followed up with managers to verify that they saw the participants successfully using their new skills. You can also provide class summaries and discussion prompts to managers, require participants to share their action plans with their managers, or even ask managers to provide feedback on their direct reports’ learning experiences.

Designing for Behavioral Change

Designing training programs that reliably change behaviors is the critical missing link between L&D and business results. When we focus on creating training that impacts workplace behavior, we can directly contribute to the success of our organizations.

When change management professionals plan their efforts, they think about “overdetermining” change. Instead of asking what is the minimum they need to do to make change possible, they strategize how to tap as many sources of influence as possible in order to overcome resistance.

L&D professionals should adopt the same mindset. Just like change leaders, we can only indirectly influence the behaviors that occur after participants leave our classes. We need to identify the reasons for resistance—that the participants spend most of their time attending fire talks, overlook the situational snowflake, and get lost in the whirlwind—and marshal a variety of techniques to overcome those points of resistance. Hopefully the techniques in this article can help you start thinking about ways that you can improve the rate of behavior change in your programs.

About the Author

Colin J. Hahn is passionate about helping people master new skills and has built his career around helping organizations solving their talent development challenges. As Director of Talent Development for Leadership Ecademy, he is responsible for creating training experiences that produce measurable behavioral changes. Hahn's past clients include Naval Air Systems Command, Walmart, Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, and Goodwill of North Central Wisconsin.

Hahn holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, as well as an M.A. in philosophy, from Marquette University. He earned his bachelor's degree in philosophy and political science from Gonzaga University.

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