December 5, 2013
My sister-in-law Julia just returned from a trip to Eastern Europe, which included stops in the Czech Republic and Hungary. These are exciting times there as each country continues to adapt as a global community grows out of the old Soviet Empire. Her Hungarian tour guide told them about changes in society in terms of culture, education and other social trends. Julia asked her if she speaks Russian in view of Hungary’s prior links to the USSR. She laughed and said that she used to know the language but no longer does; she had studied it for many years and can’t remember a word. And she’s proud she has lost that knowledge. This seemed strange to me. How do you forget a language you’ve learned and were required to absorb? The answer: She forgot on purpose. That is, she told Julia the government forced her to study Russian. She and many of her friends had no interest in learning, disagreed with the requirement and studied only because they were forced to do so. They didn’t see the point, didn’t want to follow the rules and just got through their basic requirements. This is an extreme version of how many organizations conceptualize training initiatives, particularly those imposed by external regulatory requirements. Instead of figuring out how to engage participants and get them to see the importance and personal benefit to them in what they must learn, they apply a different focus. In so many words, the message they deliver is: “Do this, complete these courses because we say they’re important. You’ll be punished if you don’t finish on time.” Delivering messages like this can be done effectively in terms of reaching dispersed audiences quickly and recording completion to prove compliance. But frequently, that’s the essence of what’s accomplished. From feedback we hear, the impact on learners is not understanding and long-term behavior change. Force-feeding information like that won’t achieve that result any more than compelling Julia’s Hungarian tour guide and friends to learn Russian. At the first chance they had, they said “nyet” to speaking Russian. We should be asking if we’re trying to change workplace behavior the same way. If so, we’ll get, and I suspect have been getting, in many instances the same response. Stephen Paskoff is president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI Inc., a provider of ethics and compliance learning solutions. He can be contacted at email@example.com.