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Does training actually change behavior?

As I scrolled through Twitter earlier this week, I came across this tweet from Kate Greene.

It’s a really good, really important question.

While this was my reply…

…I think it’s a conversation that merits more than 280 characters. And it seems to be an important question to engage the core audience of Train Like A Champion with, too! (So let me know your thoughts in the comment section.)

I firmly believe that while engaging training can (and should) lead to behavior change (shameless plug: the vision of my instructional design firm is “that every training opportunity is engaging and leads to change”), training alone will rarely produce the change that we desire.

In fact, some training doesn’t have behavior change as it’s intention. Sometimes training is organized to raise awareness about a new concept or policy. Sometimes training is used as a teambuilder, bringing people together to offer a common experience (and secondarily, if they learn something and change their behavior, then it’s even more of a success).

On the other hand, sometimes corporate training is launched with the intent of changing behaviors when the behaviors in question aren’t really a training problem. No amount of training can change behaviors that are the result of systemic, cultural or policy shortcomings. There are times when a simple conversation between a manager and an employee would be more appropriate, but instead an entire training session is created.

I believe these are the types of situations to which Guy Wallace was referring when he responded to Kate’s tweet by saying:

So let’s leave those scenarios aside and take a closer look at situations in which training is an appropriate element in helping change behaviors – helping someone to do something new or differently or better.

Training – whether elearning or instructor-led – can:

  • Introduce new concepts
  • Open the learners’ eyes to bad habits or blind spots
  • Help a learner practice a new skill in a safe environment without real world consequences
  • Offer opportunities for reflection
  • Provide structure and models to organize thoughts
  • Facilitate conversations among peers who all have different experiences and various viewpoints through which they see and may use new concepts or practices

That’s not an exhaustive list, but it does offer you some ideas on the potential that training holds. Of course, here are some things that training cannot do:

  • Guarantee that someone will remember what they learned by the time they have to use it in the real world
  • Monitor how well someone performs or changes their behavior outside of the training environment
  • Ensure mastery of a new concept, skill or practice
  • Replicate all of the pressures, stresses, curve balls and distractions that come at someone in the real world and which may hinder behavior change and/or encourage status quo behaviors to continue

Both of these lists – basically what training is and what training is not – are crucial to keep in mind when you are designing training intended to help change behavior. Beyond good training design that includes opportunities for authentic practice, feedback and reflection, here are some things that can be built in around the actual training event that can help with retention of the content and transfer of the skills/behaviors:

  • Provide something in advance for the learner and their supervisor to discuss and set goals. When the supervisor can help set goals and hold someone accountable for applying new skills, the likelihood that there will be behavior change will increase. Of course, the tricky parts include trying to engage the (usually very busy) supervisor, and trying to get a learner to do anything in advance of a training.
  • Introduce job aids, graphic organizers and other resources during the training that can be used outside of the training environment and which can help the learner remember what and how to do something new, differently or better.
  • Offer periodic learning boosts following a training session that challenge the learner to recall a specific piece of content and that offer additional, specific ways that what they learned can be helpful in their day to day role.

Creating effective training that leads to behavior change can take some time to design and deliver. If you could use an extra set of hands putting together your next training program – whether in-person, virtual or elearning, drop me a line and let’s talk things through!

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