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Creating Real and Lasting Performance Improvement through Behavior Change - Part 1
by Stanton Heister, Principal, Peak Performance Business Consulting LLC

In most companies there exists a training or learning organization.  These organizations respond to perceived training needs by designing, developing, deploying and delivering training either by electronic means or through instructor-led training interventions.  Unfortunately in most circumstances, when the “training” session is over, the learning stops.

Even more tragically, the person involved in the training forgets most of what they learned in the next sixty to ninety days if there is no reinforcement mechanism in place to ensure concepts are worked into the daily routine.  I have witnessed this myself on countless occasions. I have facilitated or instructed hundreds of events either in person or as part of a blended learning program from a distance.  Students were being taught very important and relevant skills that were critical to their success in the field.  The courses went well, the material was well accepted by the students, evaluations were positive - then student and instructor parted ways.

Weeks or months later, I would observe these same students involved in activities where they had the chance to demonstrate the skills that they “learned” only a short time ago.  Regrettably, I found that in the vast majority of the cases, few or none of the concepts that were imparted during the training intervention were being effectively used – they 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 as was the case above.  Retention and implementation of the learned skill is necessary to ensuring you are realizing a return on your investment which is becoming ever more important to companies as I point out below.

Consider this study done by the National Training Laboratories.  You can see that simply sitting through a lecture, reading or even the use of audio visual methods result in very low retention rates amongst learners.  Retention does not start happening to any large degree until you begin to reinforce the content with discussion and practice.

Why is this important today?

The state of the economy has caused many companies to cut back in the area of training due to travel restrictions or cuts within the learning organization itself.  These training departments are leaner, and must work within shrinking travel budgets which is forcing them to be creative in order to maintain the level of service that they have become accustomed to providing.

Combine this with the urgency companies have to sell their products and services to stay afloat, and one can see where there could be a disconnect – needing a competent sales and management organization to successfully compete in a difficult economy with a leaner training staff and less money to get it done.

A growing phenomenon

We are also seeing some companies in a rush to add to their sales organizations then urgently trying to bring people up to speed in order to maintain or increase sales.  From a learning perspective, this means conducting “fire hose” style New Hire Training either live or through a set of web-based courses which ultimately does little to prepare the newly hired individual to succeed. 

As the economy improves and companies begin to hire at an increasing pace, this problem will become even more pronounced.  Picture this…tens or even hundreds of people being rushed through New Hire Training programs, perhaps both live and on the web – being exposed to dozens of hours of training in a matter of weeks or in some cases perhaps just a few days.  When the dust settles and we attempt to measure the effectiveness of that training we will unfortunately find that much of the money spent was in vain – meaning that real and lasting behavior change did not in reality, take place.  Sadly, few learning organizations attempt to conduct level 3 or 4 (Kirkpatrick Scale) assessments of their training interventions so they may never know just how much of a waste it was.

So, the million dollar question… how do we ensure that our training dollars are well spent and that adult learners actually put into practice, the concepts and skills taught by our learning organizations?  Below, I outline a process that, when implemented, will go a long way to accomplishing this goal.

In order to facilitate real and lasting behavior change and performance improvement in adult learners, the following 5 elements must be present.

  • Insight and intelligence into the person who is the target for the behavior change
  • Acknowledgement of the need to change
  • Agreement to accept and work toward change
  • Skill or knowledge-based learning interventions
  • Reinforcement of the learned concepts, and practice

I. Insight and intelligence of the person

It stands to reason, in order to best target training and reinforcement activities designed to create behavior change, 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 “checkmark” 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, restrictions on travel and not to mention savvy executives demanding more proof that their training dollars are being well spent, i.e. resulting in performance improvement.

Consider the training of an athlete like a professional golfer such as Tiger Woods.  If Tiger begins to slice his Tee Shot what would his coach do?  Would the coach recommend that Tiger 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 of the aspects of Tiger’s approach, stance, grip, swing etc. before making a recommendation for improvement.  The training would be targeted and surely more effective than asking the golfer to make wholesale changes.     

Like this golf analogy, rather than taking a blanket approach, companies should seek to understand the individual before identifying the training and reinforcement intervention.  There are many methods of gathering this type of information.  Some methods include simply polling people as to their perceived needs.  The problem here is that many times workers are not aware of, or perhaps unwilling to admit, the need for improvement in a certain area.  They may have “blind spots” where they simply do not recognize the need for improvement or are reluctant to admit that they could use some refining in skill X or knowledge area Y. 

Sometimes organizations survey the employee’s manager, peers and subordinates to identify potential areas for improvement.  Unfortunately, this approach can involve bias and politics from managers or peers and, at best, should be only one part of the needs identification approach.

Assessments are another option that provide 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, occupational interests etc.  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 of choice is both valid and reliable. 

In order to be valid, an assessment must accurately measure the areas that it claims to be testing.  In order 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 0.60 or greater (on a 1-point scale) or it has “limited applicability.”  Here is how the Department of Labor rates reliability scores for assessments:

  • 0.90 - 1.0 = Excellent
  • 0.80 - 0.89 = Good
  • 0.70 - 0.79 = Adequate
  • Below 0.70 = Limited Applicability

So, assessments are useful and can shed light on areas for improvement within individual workers, but companies should take precaution as to which tool you 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.

In the second of this two part series, we will examine, in detail, the final 4 elements.  We will explore why, like the first element, each is critical to creating real and lasting behavior change and performance improvement.

  • Insight and intelligence into the person who is the target for the behavior change
  • Acknowledgement of the need to change
  • Agreement to accept and work toward change
  • Skill or knowledge-based learning interventions
  • Reinforcement of the learned concepts, and practice


The Author

Stanton Heister

Peak Performance Business Consulting LLC is an Organizational Development company focused on increasing company performance though the improvement of their key contributors and through the use of intelligent hiring practices.  Stanton Heister, Principal of the company, has over 25 years of business experience in the area of Sales, Marketing and Training.  He holds a Bachelor degree in Business from the University of Michigan and a MBA from the University of Portland. 

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