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Creating Lasting Performance Improvement Through Behavior Change

February 9, 2010
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Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Career Development, Basic Skills Training, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
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In most companies there exists a training or learning organization. These organizations respond to perceived training needs by delivering training either by electronic means or through instructor-led sessions. Unfortunately in most circumstances, when the training event is over, the learning stops.

Even more unfortunately, the people involved in the training forget most of what they learned over the next 60 to 90 days if there is no reinforcement mechanism in place to ensure that the concepts are worked into the daily routine. This reality is unfortunately the case in the learning world today. Students are being taught very important and relevant skills that are critical to their success in the field. The courses go well, the material is well accepted by the students, and evaluations are positive. Then student and instructor part ways.

When we observe these same adult learners weeks or months later, participating in activities where they have the opportunity to demonstrate the skills that they “learned” only a short time ago, we find that they have not applied the skills from the learning that they were supposed to have gained. Regrettably, in the vast majority of the cases, few or none of the concepts that were imparted during the training intervention were being effectively used; the learners had simply gone back to the same practices with which they were comfortable prior to the training event.

Why did this happen so consistently? Well, because change is difficult, especially when we are talking about adult learners.

In the corporate world, learning can be seen as meaningless unless a change in behavior takes place. As organizations we invest resources in training in order to improve performance in some way—and for this to happen, behavior change must take place. So, how do we ensure our investments in training are resulting in real change?

In order to facilitate real and lasting behavior change and performance improvement in adult learners, the following five elements must be present.

1. Insight and intelligence into the person who is the target for the behavior change
2. That person’s acknowledgement of the need to change 
3. Agreement to accept and work toward change
4. Skill- or knowledge-based learning interventions
5. Reinforcement of the learned concepts, and practice

1. Insight and intelligence into the person

The best training and reinforcement activities are designed to create behavior change, so it stands to reason that we first understand the individual.

If we simply take the approach that everyone needs everything with regard to skill training, then we will unnecessarily waste scarce resources and time that companies cannot afford, simply in an effort to put a check mark next to a group of employees.

This blanket approach to training is certainly prevalent today in businesses all over the world. However, training approaches are being increasingly scrutinized due to tight budgets and restrictions on travel, not to mention the fact that savvy executives are demanding more proof that their training dollars are being well spent—that is, that the training is resulting in performance improvement.

Consider the training of an athlete, such as professional golfer Phil Mickelson. If Mickelson begins to slice his tee shot, what would his coach do? Would the coach recommend that Mickelson change his approach, his stance, his grip, the way he swings the club and the club itself? Probably not.

The recommendation would most likely focus on one key area that is believed to be the cause of the slice—perhaps the way he is following through with his swing. The coach would likely study closely all the aspects of Mickelson’s approach, stance, grip and swing before making a recommendation for improvement. The training would be targeted and surely more effective than asking the golfer to make wholesale changes.

So rather than taking a blanket approach, companies should likewise seek to understand the individual before identifying the training and reinforcement intervention.

There are many ways to gather this information, including polling individuals as to their perceived needs (self-assessment); surveying the employee’s manager, peers and subordinates to identify potential areas for improvement (360- degree assessments); or using a behavioral or whole-person assessment tool.

Assessment tools give companies insight into where a given worker may need help or behavior change in order to improve performance. These tools can be very helpful in determining a person’s personality, behavioral traits, cognitive abilities, propensity to be honest and occupational interests, for example. There are numerous tools available to assess individuals. However, there are some pitfalls with certain assessments, and organizations need to be sure that the tool is both valid and reliable.

In order to be valid, an assessment must accurately measure the areas that it claims to be testing. For an assessment to be reliable, it must—when repeated—render the same or nearly the same result each time. This result is called the “reliability factor.” The Department of Labor reports that for an assessment to be a valid source of information about an individual, it should have a reliability score of 0.7 or greater (on a one-point scale) or it has “limited applicability.” Here is how the Department of Labor rates reliability scores for assessments:

• 0.9-1 = excellent

• 0.8-0.89 = good

• 0.7-0.79 = adequate

• Below 0.7 = limited applicability

So, assessments are useful and can shed light on areas for improvement within individual workers, but companies should take precautions as to which tool they choose and always check to be sure the tool’s vendor can supply them with the tests that were conducted that form the stated reliability rating for that tool.

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2. Acknowledgement of the need to change

Let’s continue with the golf analogy. If Mickelson does not acknowledge that he has a slice, or that the slice is a problem, chances are slim that he will work to change his game. A similar paradigm holds true for adult learners. If they do not believe they have a problem or are unwilling to admit that changing a behavior or improving in a skill area would be useful for them, they will not change.

Behavior change for adults is difficult. It has taken years for us to be shaped into the workers and people that we are, and in most cases we believe we are doing a fine job. However, when people truly reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses in a confidential, nonthreatening setting, they will most times identify areas where they would like to improve.

By combining this confidential and candid conversation with real insight and intelligence about the person, real progress toward behavior change and performance improvement can be made.

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3. Agreement to accept and work toward change

Once the worker has acknowledged that there are areas that she would like to improve upon, she must commit to taking the necessary steps to make this change real and lasting. Simply recognizing that an issue exists is not enough and is only the beginning. When this important acknowledgement step is reached, we can then gain agreement to take action in order to enact the desired change. If, for example, Mickelson fully acknowledges that he is slicing the ball, but is unwilling to put in the effort to change, change is unlikely to occur.

Gaining agreement and setting a plan is where companies should turn to a qualified external coach for help. Without such a resource, commitment reinforcement and direction are more difficult to achieve. A qualified and seasoned coach can help the person identify the action steps necessary, agree on timelines, gain commitment, provide feedback and assess progress. The coach should also be in place to brief the learner’s manager on the progress being made, which also helps to encourage the change and provide an additional feedback mechanism.

I personally have experience with both sides of this coin. I have been an internal company trainer and director and am an external provider of training and coaching now. Though it is certainly an option to offer this tailored approach with internal company resources, it can be less effective for a few reasons, most of which have to do with issues such as confidentiality, politics and trust. A qualified external coach or trainer can focus on the desired behavior change and performance improvement without raising fears in the individual or groups being coached that conversations will be looped back to management. In my experience, you can have much more frank discussions with employees when they trust that you will keep conversations confidential. This is not always realistic with an internal resource.

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4. Skill or knowledge-based learning interventions

After we have gained insight and intelligence into the person in need of change, obtained acknowledgement of the need for change and secured a commitment to change, we can design a set of learning interventions to enact the change we have agreed upon.

This set of training interventions should be designed specifically for the learner. This approach is very different from blanket training. It’s a waste of a worker’s time and company money to supply training that is general and typically “point to point,” meaning that it occurs at one point in time and then comes to an end, with no reinforcement or continued practice and feedback mechanisms in place to ensure lasting change occurs. Instead, it’s best to focus on exactly what the learner needs—no more and no less.

When designing the individualized training, schedule the set of learning interventions over time. This allows for deeper learning, and the learning is less likely to reach a point of diminishing returns due to issues of overload (the “fire-hose syndrome”) or attention span. As an example, Phil Mickelson’s slice coach would surely give him a set of instructions and expect him to practice this new approach over and over. This kind of change will certainly need to take place over time. This is true for the corporate learner as well. Stay away from one-time learning events and move toward a more holistic approach that puts time and repetition on the learner’s side.

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5. Reinforcement of the learned concepts and practice

Throughout the behavioral change process described to this point, there should be coaching and management interventions that are designed to provide reinforcement and feedback to the learner. These sessions help the learner stay focused on the agreed-upon change, the action plan or steps, and the implementation of the plan. Without a coach in place, the learner is unlikely to stick to the plan.

Many training organizations bow out after the training session is complete. Instructor and learner part ways, with the instructor left to hope that the members of the class retain at least one of the skills or concepts that were introduced. Real and lasting behavior change is unlikely to occur in this scenario.

What does bring about lasting change is practice, practice, practice. As Geoff Colvin points out so well in his book Talent Is Overrated, only practice enables people to improve. Furthermore, he points out that the practice must be deliberate and focused on the skill that the learner is intending to improve upon.

This is where coaching becomes critical. In order for the skills or concepts that were imparted to the learner during the training session to bring about real and lasting behavior change, they must be accompanied by reinforcement. Reinforcement must be driven by a coach and actively embraced by the individual. The coach should keep a timeline for actions, witness practice sessions, provide relevant feedback and report back to management on the progress that is realized. As such, good coaches should also be good trainers and understand the art of providing useful feedback. Feedback, when done properly, reinforces the practice and helps the learner understand where progress is being made and where continued work needs to be focused.

If Phil Mickelson’s coach simply instructs him in what to do and then departs without observing him implementing the suggested change, he may never know if Mickelson successfully implemented the change. Likewise, the coach must observe and provide feedback on an ongoing basis in order to ensure the change in the adult learner is successful and becomes permanent. This is a key component to behavior change in adult learners—just as it is for athletes in training.

When this five-step process is used, something impressive happens at both the individual and organizational levels. Learners reach a new level of satisfaction with themselves and their jobs when they experience real and lasting performance improvement through behavior change. As individual contribution increases, company performance rises, turnover drops and the bottom line improves. And it all happens one person at a time.

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Copyright © 2010 Peak Performance Business Consulting LLC, Colorado Springs, Colorado

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