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Creating Real and Lasting Performance Improvement through Behavior Change - Part 2
by Stanton Heister, Principal, Peak Performance Business Consulting LLC

In Part One of this Two Part Series, we discussed the fact that many companies today deliver training by electronic means or through instructor-led training interventions and that unfortunately, in most circumstances, contain no follow-up or reinforcement mechanism.  This means that when the “training” session is over, the learning stops.

We found that 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. 

We explored why this happens so consistently and determined that in order for behavior change to take place in adult learners, a logical process that includes several steps must take place.

In this second of two parts we examine this process in detail.

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 identigying 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.

II. Acknowledgement of the need to change

Continuing with our golf analogy, if Tiger does not acknowledge that he has a slice or that the slice is a problem, chances are slim that he will work to improve.   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 worker and person that we are, and in most cases we believe we are doing a fine job.  However, when a person truly reflects on her own strengths and weaknesses in a confidential, non-threatening setting, she will most times identify areas where she would like to improve.

Combine this confidential and candid conversation with real insight and intelligence about the person and real progress toward behavior change and performance improvement can be made.  Only when this process is complete, can employee and trainer together, accurately identify areas for improvement - improvement that when combined with commitment, reinforcement and practice, results in real and lasting behavior change and ultimately performance gain.    

III. 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 an issue exists is not enough and is only the beginning.  When this important step (Acknowledgement) is reached, we can then gain understanding of the steps necessary and the agreement to take action in order to enact the desired change. 

Gaining agreement and setting a plan in place is where companies should turn to a qualified external coach for help.  Without such a resource, commitment reinforcement and direction is more difficult to achieve.  A qualified and seasoned coach can help the person identify the action steps necessary, agree on timelines, gain commitment and assess progress.  The coach should also be in place to brief the learner’s manager on the progress being made short of breaching any confidentiality rules that were agreed to in the beginning.  Any confidentiality arrangements between coach and learner should be honored but not include areas that could be considered harmful to the company.  The company in most cases, is footing the bill for the behavior change, and the coach must always remember that it is in the interest of both the individual and the company that the improvement is made.  This is one reason why it is important that the manager is kept informed of the learner’s progress.  Other reasons will be discussed later. 

IV. Skill or knowledge-based learning interventions

To this point we have gained insight and intelligence into the person in need of change through self assessment, peer assessment, manager assessment and/or subordinate assessment.  We have combined these opinions with the insight and intelligence gained through the use of a valid and reliable “whole person” assessment.  We gained acknowledgement of the need for change and, through the use of a qualified coach, have obtained a commitment and outlined a set of action steps necessary to enact real and lasting behavior change.

Now it’s time to involve the learner in a set of training interventions designed specifically for her.  This approach is way different than the type of blanket training that was discussed at the top of this paper.  Rather than wasting a worker’s time and company money on training that is non-individualized and typically point to point, focus on exactly what the learner needs, no more and no less.  Point-to-point training means the learning intervention occurs at one point in time and then comes to an end with no reinforcement or continued practice/feedback mechanism in place to ensure lasting change occurs. 

The assessment and agreement of areas for improvement should shed light on training modules that could be helpful for this particular individual.   Seek out this training or learning and schedule the interventions in phases so that they occur over time.  This allows for deeper learning and the learning is less likely of reaching a point of diminishing returns due to overload “fire-hose syndrome” or attention span issues.  As an example, a recent assessment revealed that Mary, a customer service manager, tended to be overly direct to the point that it was de-motivating her direct reports.  A training intervention might include topics that focus on understanding behavioral traits, or motivating people.  The use of a targeted skill enhancement training module in this case could go a long way to helping Mary be more productive, since she would now understand better how to motivate and coach employees with differing work or personality styles.  She would become less frustrated and her direct reports would be much less stressed and more willing to perform for Mary.    

V.  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.  The process is such that when the training 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.

As mentioned at the top of the paper, I have witnessed many situations where it was clear that the learner had not worked or continued to practice the skills put in place after the training session was completed.  This resulted in little or no behavior change.  Don’t blame the learner.  They have jobs to go back to and with no one there to help them continue to focus or practice, who can blame them for simply forgetting the concepts that were taught?

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 upon our learner during the training session to enact real and lasting behavior change, it must be accompanied by reinforcement that is 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. 

Once again… in the case of training an athlete like Tiger Woods - If Tiger’s coach simply instructs Tiger what to do and then departs without observing Tiger implementing the suggested change, he may never know if Tiger successfully implemented the change.  The coach must observe and provide feedback iteratively in order to ensure the change is successful and becomes permanent.  This is a key component to behavior change in adult learners just as it is when training athletes.  

In summary

The state of the economy has presented a challenge to learning organizations as they seek to provide an adequate level of service to their audiences with less money and perhaps fewer staff.  Moreover, current and future trends around the urgency of hiring and developing productive management and sales organizations presents a heightened dilemma. 

How will learning organizations adjust to these concerns?  Will they be able to transform themselves into more nimble, proactive groups that focus on real and lasting performance improvement that occurs when behavior change takes place?  If so, how will they do this?

We have demonstrated that in order for learning organizations to help adult learners improve performance through behavior change, the five elements listed above must be present.  We must possess insight and intelligence into the person, gain acknowledgement from the individual that there is indeed room for improvement, obtain agreement that there is a desire to change, design and implement targeted learning interventions and finally combine this training with coaching that reinforces the learning that has taken place. 

When this process is used, the learning organization will have successfully imparted real and lasting change in the individual.  Learners reach a new level of satisfaction with themselves and their jobs when they experience real land lasting performance improvement through behavior change.  In the end, individual contribution increases, company performance rises, turnover is reduced and the bottom line is improved - one person at a time!


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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