Making Learning Matter: 11 Simple Commandments

From time to time, conversations with prospective clients go like the one I had last week.
“They‘re simply not getting it. Managers, executives and employees are saturated with information and they’re zoning out. We give our leaders and employees great training videos to watch. We have them go to classes that address our issues. We deliver engaging e-learning and we send them reminders. But something’s not working. Not enough are getting key points and applying what they’re supposed to learn. How do we fix this?”
In the last 25 years, I’ve heard this frustration expressed about initiatives focusing on topics ranging from discrimination to abusive conduct to encouraging the raising of concerns to ethics and compliance responsibilities. Yet, the dissatisfaction persists, even as new technologies have dramatically improved our ability to reach everyone at anytime with customized, specific and interesting content at their desktop.
As I wrote in Maximizing Workplace Outcomes and Behaviors: Checklists: Yes; Check-the-Box: No, I believe in checklists as a way to get things done and simplify complex problems. So here’s a checklist of 11 “commandments” to consider as you work to influence behavior rather than simply serving as a vehicle for transferring information (which may or may not be consistently applied):

  • Changing behavior is more complex and a different function than delivering information.This is the most important “commandment.” All others are derived from it. Information is easy to convey. Structuring information, learning and reinforcing to impact ongoing behavior is more complex. Ask yourself how many single interactions, life experiences or learning events, no matter how clear and effective, had an ongoing impact on how you act.
  • Manage your messages: Keep them simple, clear and few. It’s better to have a few messages that are frequently repeated and reinforced than multiple messages that are infrequently delivered. Group together initiatives like diversity and inclusion and ethics and compliance. Too many messages are distracting, confusing, fatiguing and, too many, not worth the bother.
  • There’s a difference between entertaining an audience and influencing behavior. It’s easy to deliver entertaining and humorous content. However, unless the message is taken as seriously as intended, the entertainment won’t affect behavior. In fact, the jokes may be more memorable than the message – clearly not the intended purpose.
  • Vague messages lead to vague results. Many organizational initiatives are designed to build trust, respect, or dignity. But failing to develop a simple behavioral message means that individuals will ultimately interpret those messages through their own perspective. Telling people to sell is not the same as giving them a quantitative goal. The same is true with behavioral goals. As an example: “don’t lie or fabricate records” is a clearer and more specific standard than “act with integrity.”
  • People Follow Leaders. Unless leaders frequently repeat messages and apply them themselves, the message they actually communicate is that none of this matters. So, making sure leaders talk about key messages is critical.
  • It’s got to matter to me. Too many business messages are presented from the point of view of benefits to the organization or to employees as a whole. If you want people to change their behavior, they have to understand what’s in it for them.
  • Don’t tell me, let me tell you. Adults don’t like to be told to change their behavior. The more habitual their patterns, the harder it is to change them. The problem is either conscious or unconscious conceptual resistance. If you want people to change, you must not only give them standards, but also, in the best, interactive learning experiences, there is an opportunity for participants to tell each other and the instructor why change is important and what standards should be applied.
  • If I have to teach others, I’m more likely to do it myself. When organizations distribute information passively, they miss a key element of making it stick. Give participants responsibilities for applying and communicating information to others and that will make it more likely that they themselves will follow the same principles.
  • Don’t confuse technical information with what needs to be applied. Too often organizations develop complex standards based on complex laws and regulations. Figure out what behavioral problems those standards are designed to address and emphasize them. For example, compliance training should be designed to affect conduct, not turn team members into first-year students of the law.
  • Reward the standard; enforce the breach. For learning to matter, there must be consequences: recognition for those who meet standards and consequences for those whose conduct fails to meet the expected standard. Information without consequences simply doesn’t matter.
  • You don’t know our organization like we do. Yes, learning must be tailored so it is seen as relevant to the practices and issues faced in daily business. Insiders know more than outsiders. However, learning about organizational issues from client insiders is not hard to do. What’s far harder is making certain that the underlying message is seen as realistic, important, credible and clear. An effective learning methodology, reinforcement plan, and daily involvement of leaders and other members of the community are at least as important as relevant “case” examples.
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