Monday 3 February 2014

Learning is Behaviour Change: why is it often so hard to help it happen?

A fascinating article recently published on the Fast Company blog should be required reading for all learning and talent professionals as well as for leaders and managers.
Alan Deutschman, the author of ‘Change or Die’ makes a pretty stark statement about people’s reluctance to change:
“What if a well-informed, trusted authority figure said you had to make difficult and enduring changes in the way you think and act? If you didn't, your time would end soon -- a lot sooner than it had to. Could you change when change really mattered? When it mattered most?”
He goes on to say that even if you think you’d change, it’s unlikely to happen. The scientifically studied odds are nine-to-one that even if confronted with life-or-death decisions, people simply can’t change their behaviour.
Or as the writer and author of ‘Brave New World’, Aldous Huxley, once succinctly put it: “I see the better but it is the worse I pursue”.
Stop or Simply Avoid the Pain?
StopWe’ve all seen or experienced the challenge of behaviour change and the inability to make it happen in any meaningful way.
How many of us have tried regimes of dieting or increased exercise, or even keeping away from some stimulant or another for for a time only to fail to keep to our intentions after an initial few weeks (or even days). We return to previous behaviours far more easily than we’d like to think we do.
Deutschman cites examples from medicine. People fail to adopt healthy lifestyles even in the face of certain curtailment of life. 90% of patients with heart disease in a study at Johns Hopkins University failed to adopt a lifestyle change in spite of major heart surgery.
I’ve seen it first-hand.
Some years ago I spent six weeks in a cardiac unit being treated for a heart infection (caused by a sheep-borne micro-organism, not lifestyle, I should point out..). The treatment involved being pumped full of antibiotics day-after-day in the hope that the surgeon’s knife would not need to be unsheathed.
Six weeks propped up in a hospital bed gives you plenty of time to observe things that go on around you. One behaviour that surprised me was displayed by a number of the people who emerged from serious heart surgery - triple bypasses, open heart procedures and so on. It often took only as long as they were able to walk again (sometimes just a matter of hours) for them to skulk off to the lavatories for a quick cigarette or two. Yet smoking was probably one of the major factors that put them there in the first place. And I’m sure their doctors had told them so.
Now with nicotine there’s a very clear reason why behaviour is difficult to change. There’s a chemical addiction involved. But why is is seemingly almost as difficult to change behaviour in the workplace?
CEOs and Learning Professionals as Change Agents
Not only does effective leadership fundamentally come down to changing people’s behaviour, that’s what ‘learning’ is too.
In fact learning is behaviour change above all else. We certainly can only effectively measure learning by observing and determining changes in behaviour, or allowing people to demonstrate the nature of changes in behaviour brought about through some type of learning activity or another. There is no other way.
People often get confused between ‘remembering’ and ‘learning’.
Eric Kandel the neuropsychiatrist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on learning and memory describes learning as “the ability to acquire new ideas from experience and retain them as memories”. Kandel wasn’t talking about short-term memory – the type that allows us to cram facts and figures one day, recall them the next, but forget them a week later. He was talking about long-term memory. The ability to retain new ideas from experience in long-term memory and recall them in order to respond differently than before. In other words, to alter response, performance or whatever aspect of human behaviour we are focused on, and for that alteration to be for the better. To produce improved outcomes; to deliver that project faster and to a higher quality; to provide deeper insight to that business analysis; to solve that client’s problem faster…
Deutschman goes on to point out that “conventional wisdom says that crisis is a powerful motivator for change. But severe heart disease is among the most serious of personal crises, and it doesn't motivate -- at least not nearly enough. Nor does giving people accurate analyses and factual information about their situations.”
So what else can be done to change behaviour and engender learning?
Speak to Feelings
Deutschman refers to the findings of John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied dozens of organisations in the midst of upheaval. Kotter found that the issues were never strategy, structure, culture or systems, but those related to changing behaviours.
Kotter observed that behaviour change happens mostly by speaking to feelings. Emotions, belief that this is ‘the right thing to do’, trusting that the agents of change are ‘on your side’ and are doing things that will be in your best interest (benevolent trust is the term). These are the things that help create an environment where change will happen.
The psychologist Itiel Dror has worked with forensic experts, police, armed forces personnel, pilots, surgeons and many other groups in his research into how experts in these fields have developed their capability and and how they process information and make their judgements and decisions. These are all people who deal daily with vast amounts of explicit and implicit information.
Dror is an expert in the use of shock and tension to create learning and behaviour change. He is sometimes seen at conferences and seminars with a human brain in a jar and a rich collection of shocking, but memorable, stories. Dror speaks to the power of traumatic learning experiences that often create a reaction of horror in the learner. This learning, he has found, sticks – and changes behaviour permanently.
So speaking to negative feelings is a powerful way to elicit learning and change behaviour as well as speaking to positive feelings and emotions.
The Implications for Learning Professionals
Changing behaviour is a complex and often difficult process, especially embedding long-term change. It is one of the major challenges learning professionals face. Creating great learning experiences in the moment - whether in a classroom, workshop or digitally - is a relatively easy task, but ensuring that short-term ‘learning’ becomes embedded and results in behaviour change is more difficult.
It is well worth thinking about the role that feelings and emotions play in the process. If they are central to the behaviour change process, then they must also be central to the learning process.
Deutschman explains that cognitive science, together with linguistic research, stresses the importance of ‘framing’ – ‘the mental structures that shape the way we see the world’, and that mere facts and information are unlikely to alter our ‘frames’ just as the facts presented to someone with a serious heart problem is unlikely to redirect them to an instant healthy lifestyle.
Our usual response to ‘fact-based’ teaching and learning is to mould the facts to fit our world-view, not the other way around. We need to create an environment where people can experience things that alter their world view. It seems that the experiences can be deeply emotional and positive, or deeply traumatic and negative – or somewhere in between. No matter what, they need to be experiences and not just information.
This speaks to the power of  experiential learning over the ‘knowledge transfer’ approach.
Even ‘The Knowledge’ is Experiential
The Knowledge’ is the test London Taxi drivers need to take to get their green badge and be allowed on the road.
No other urban authority in the world requires its taxi drivers to know their city in such minute detail. The Knowledge (started in 1865 and little changed since) requires drivers preparing for their taxi licence test to know some 420 ‘runs’ across London – every cross-street, every major building, every restaurant, every pub, every major retail outlet, every monument, every point-of-interest and so on in such blinding detail that one would think it’s an almost impossible task to learn them all.
Next time you get into a cab in London try the driver out.  Ask him a question such as “where’s the smallest monument in the City of London” or “where’s the plaque that recounts why ‘POMs’ got their name” (two topics a black taxi driver enlightened me with on a trip across London last week). You’ll usually get a correct, and comprehensive, answer.
London cabbies need to learn every street and lane in a six-mile radius of Charing Cross Station.  Hundreds of streets alone, let alone the thousands of way-points. And they need to be able to ‘call’ them in examination conditions to get their licence.
It often takes three years or more for a prospective cabbie to learn the details of all the the ‘runs’ in the ‘Blue Book’ and pass the tough Knowledge tests. No sat navs for these drivers whose brains have been shown to have been ‘moulded’ by learning The Knowledge and by years of driving the streets.
The important point about The Knowledge is that the way people learn it is not by sitting in their homes and poring over maps or checking details on Google’s street view.  They get out and experience the runs. They do it by bicycle or motorbike. Again and again. and then they ‘call’ their newly-learned runs to friends and colleagues – even better if they’re also learning The Knowledge. They learn it experientially and socially.
Key Lesson
The key lesson to take away from Deutschman, Dror and the London taxi drivers’ Knowledge is that if we want to support learning effectively and engender behaviour change, then we need to create environments where emotional responses, rich experiences and social learning are at the forefront. Old-fashioned content-centric training models away from the workplace simply don’t help terribly much.



  1. Charles, great, insightful article! Can you please provide a link to the Fast Company blog you mention as required reading? The link in your post goes to unrelated marketing that has no search capability.

    1. I've changed the first link so it goes directly to the article.

  2. Charles, change can be hard but not always. People make exciting changes such as new jobs, marriage and moving house quite voluntarily even though these are among the most stressful things we can ever do. Why? The answer reminds me of the old joke: how many psychologists does it take to change the light bulb. Answer: one – but the light bulb really has to want to change,. If we are to produce behavioral change as a result of learning we need to shift our emphasis from L&D comfort zone of knowledge, design and delivery to the more complex and difficult area of motivation. And that will mean getting out of the L&D department and working with managers and individual employees within the organization.

    1. I absolutely agree with you, Tarik. People don't change attitudes or behaviours by being told or 'instructed'. They change when they 'see the better' and feel the benefits.

  3. Great article Charles. Emotions are powerful change agents. People need means to express emotions to help them 'self-realise' what it is they're feeling and experiencing, their own changes in behaviour. And these experiences voluntarily shared with others can become powerful motivators for change in others.

    And nothing motivates more than being part of something, not just an onlooker. Much of the learning we created in the past was pushed to people as onlookers. The modern business requires people to be motivated enough to actively pull learning to them when needed. I believe people will be more motivated if they have more means of self expression, to initiate discussion, conversation and knowledge sharing. In the digital age this means more online interaction through social media platforms and tools.

    I'm reminded of the power of testimony as evidenced in many churches. Any minister will tell you that a powerful personal testimony shared by a parishioner is far more powerful change agent than a sermon pushed to a congregation.

  4. I find this post fascinating as I"m reading a book called the Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal (also taking her Science of Willpower class.) There are two things that immediately jumped to mind from a cognitive science perspective.

    1) The Fish Bowl technique to motivate behavior change - these are for people who had serious addiction programs -- trying to get them to show up and complete a 12 week intervention program. Patients who pass their drug tests [i.e., are "clean"] win the opportunity to draw a slip of paper out of a bowl. There is one big prize ($100) and smaller prizes of $1-20. But half just say "keep up the good work." This works. In one study 83% of patients stayed in treatment vs. 40% of standard treatment group. This works better than paying patients. It's an unpredictable award, and our reward system gets more excited about this.

    2) When we create fear among smokers, etc, and share with them all the "bad things" that happens -- it strikes fear into their hearts -- and guess what? they reach for the thing that comforts them -- such as smoking or eating. Instead, what works is practicing self-compassion to try to help get folks to change.

    There's much we as learnign professionals can learn from psychology and the work going on in cognitive science. Exciting times! Love the post.

  5. Charles, great article! I agree we need to spend more time understanding their emotions and why they are resisting change. One needs to look at motivation factors behind why they should learn the new behavior and linking new experiences with positive emotions. The payoff of the desired behavior has to be greater than the payoff of the old behavior. I will keep these points in mind as I try to effect behavior change.

    RU TRDV Student

  6. Charles, great article! I agree we need to spend more time understanding their emotions and why they are resisting change. One needs to look at motivation factors behind why they should learn the new behavior and linking new experiences with positive emotions. The payoff of the desired behavior has to be greater than the payoff of the old behavior. I will keep these points in mind as I try to effect behavior change.

    RU TRDV Student

  7. Fantastic post, thank you Charles. Succinct, compact, and highly relevant.