Your Training Initiative Failed. Using science I'll explain why!

Your Training Initiative Failed. Using science I’ll explain why! (Warning: this may be upsetting for some)

You spent weeks/months researching different training companies and programs to find a fit for your needs. The organization or training program you settled on made big promises but ultimately didn’t deliver. The material never took, employee behavior didn’t change, and ultimately you ended up wasting a ton of money. Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Almost every single organization I have worked/consulted with has had this problem at one point. I am going to use behavioral science to explain why this happened.

Full Disclosure: I have been a trainer, facilitator, and worked in organizational development for 15 years. I have trained thousands of EMT’s, doctors, nurses, soldiers, police officers, crisis workers, transit professionals, diplomats, and corporate leadership. My educational background is in behavioral health and crisis management, and my work experience focused heavily on violence prevention before I entered the corporate sector. I’ve trained participants from over 28 different countries. I have made countless mistakes, learned a lot along the way, and have so much more to learn. It would make my life easier, and make my company much richer to disregard scientific research, over 100 years of educational theory, and the best practices of my industry, but you deserve the truth, and our participants deserve a fighting chance to become healthier and safer.

There are a lot of brilliant and talented workforce development professionals, but this article isn’t about them. This article is about the folks that either don’t know what they are doing is ineffective via lack of research and experience, or worse, they know, and they’d rather make money at the expense of your company and your employees. They are the modern equivalent of “traveling medical cure all salesmen” from the 1900’s. “Gather round ladies and gents, all you need is one hour of my miracle product and all of your organizational problems will be solved! That’s right. Just one hour, and everything that ails you will be gone.”

Training is different from just “sharing information.” Workforce Training/Education is defined as “activities that develop or enhance the skills of existing employees or members of any business or industry.” Just delivering information may be disguised as training, but it’s time we readjust what we are willing to accept or pay for.

Seminars can be valuable:

1. They can share new information that you want people to know.

2. Meeting a federal/state/legal mandate (and checking a box).

3. Entertaining your employees.

4. Sparking your employee’s interest in a new subject or idea.

If you are aiming to get your employees to stop certain behaviors, change their attitudes, or develop new skills, you are most likely wasting your money with all but a few of the attendees. A new study finds that students in classes with traditional stand-and-deliver lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that use more interactive learning methods.

Lecture based training is extremely ineffective by itself. How did you learn to ride a bike? I am willing to bet it wasn’t by watching an hour long powerpoint. Depending on whom you ask, adults have the average attention span of either 8 seconds (1 second shorter than a goldfish, according to Microsoft), or 15 minutes (leading education psychologists and specialists). While you can share education and information in this format, a large seminar that was advertised as a way to revolutionize worker behavior, will NOT succeed on its own. Decades of research show that transmission of information does little to create behavioral change. Up to 80% of information taught in top-down workplace training is forgotten or unused by participants. A landmark study on Traditional Lecture Methods, by Specht & Sandlin 1991 showed that retention of information via lecture was at 46% vs 84% for interactive workshops.

Behavioral Change is hard, and it doesn’t happen in an hour seminar. A seminar is a valuable tool for sharing information and educating. I am not knocking them for how useful they can be for bringing new information and content to large audiences. However, we should take a look at some of the research on why a seminar or other training programs that don’t have extra support often fail.

In 1960 book called Psycho-Cybernetics, a plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz (the writer), noticed his patients seemed to take about 21 days to get used to their new faces. *Presto* The idea was adopted across the world as the time frame in which people change their habits or behavior. Modern research shows us that change is much more complicated and varied. One study from the University College of London showed that “on average, it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. It took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.”

In October 2006, the Economic and Social Research Council, a British research group, released findings on 129 different studies of behavior change strategies. They discovered that A. the least effective strategies were those that aroused fear or regret in the person attempting to make a change. B. One of the most effective models (since 1977) for helping to shift behavior was the Trans-Theoretical Model of Change (stages of change by Dr.Prochaska and Dr.DiClemente.) This model prescribes that human beings go through stages of behavioral change and out of the 5 stages, the first two may take up to 1 year for people to decide to change their behavior. This process can be jumpstarted and sped up, but it often requires specialists with significant training in human behavior, advanced counseling techniques like Motivational Interviewing, and uncovering the unique motivations of participants. Even then, plenty of obstacles can get in the way.

Your employees didn’t feel that the training was useful– One size fits all training used across industries that don’t tailor language, skills, role plays, case studies, and activities to attendees jobs will sink your initiative. When people don’t think that something is relevant to their life/work they will push it out of their mind, actively disengage, or attack the credibility of the material or presenter.

“Trainees may be assigned to duties that differ from what they were trained to do or may return to work to find that they do not have ample time to use what they learned. If opportunities to perform are few and far between, trainees are likely to forget what they have learned and/or to view it as unimportant. It is also known that motivation to learn can be an important predictor of actual learning in training. Motivation to learn refers to a condition when trainees believe that training is relevant and are willing to exert effort in the training environment (Noe, 1986; Noe & Schmitt, 1986). Motivation to learn can influence whether individuals decide to attend training, the level of effort they exert toward learning during training, and the perseverance they demonstrate in applying skills on the job after training (Quiñones, 1997)

“In a recent study, Sitzmann, Brown, Ely, and Kraiger (2009) Trainees reacted negatively to the perceived lack of usefulness of earlier training courses, and this led to a decline in their training motivation in later courses.”

Pop psychology and “cutesy” trainings set up for professionals in serious/fast paced/high-stress jobs generally infuriates them. I will never forget the day when I walked by a training room and I heard the facilitator say “Ok, now sir, according to the checklist what type of animal are you? Are you a squirrel leader? A koala bear? A lizard leader perhaps?” The man looked up at him and coolly replied, “I am whatever animal can kill you the fastest so I can get the hell out of this waste of my time.” That former member of the Navy Seabees didn’t appreciate someone with “no bonafide’s” telling him how to lead.

It wasn’t backed up- No matter how good a training initiative is, we forget things and revert to the behavior that is the most hardwired. According to neuroscientist and “habit-expert” Dr. Elliot Berkman, “People who want to kick their habit for reasons that are aligned with their personal values will change their behavior faster than people who are doing it for external reasons such as pressure from others.”  If employees feel that their leaders and managers are not committed to their new change/training initiative they will have ammunition for not adopting their new learning. Human beings adapt to their living environment to survive. Culture does indeed eat strategy or training for that matter, for breakfast (thanks, Drucker.) It doesn’t stop there, neuroscience to the rescue.

There are three main ways that we commit ideas from short term memory to long term memory; urgency, repetition, and association. When we learn new information we develop new neural pathways. Repetition is one of the strongest ways to keep those pathways in our brain from eroding and impeding our ability to recall information. Here is a quote from someone much more schooled in this than I am, Dr. Gretchen Schmelzer (a specialist in memory and trauma healing.) “Repetition creates long-term memory by eliciting or enacting strong chemical interactions at the synapse of your neuron (where neurons connect to other neurons). Repetition creates the strongest learning—and most learning—both implicit (like tying your shoes) and explicit (multiplication tables) relies on repetition. It is also why it is so hard to make behavior change, because the new behavior must be repeated for so long—and the old behavior must be held in check.”

Urgency memorization occurs when we experience a threat or a sudden rush of survival chemicals to our amygdala, causing us to create a very strong neural pathway. This burst of strong emotion is designed to help us remember (sometimes for our entire life) how to stay safe and avoid danger. We often remember very intense or scary experiences, but they can create unreliable recall as it is tied to emotion.

Association uses our brain’s ability to tap into neural pathways that already exist. As Dr. Schmelzer explains, “It’s the brains equivalent of already having a file folder for the new learning to go into.” Taking concepts people already understand or know well, and adding to it. That combined with repetition can create valuable long lasting learning tools.

THE BOTTOM LINE: If you do not have recertification, help training participants actively and regularly back up what they learned via repetition, or create deep emotional connections to the material/learning, they forget it. The training must become ingrained in the culture of the organization, the physical environment, and be practical enough to be used regularly or it will fade.

Good training is hard to find. Here are some things to look for:

  1. The training company doesn’t promise you miracles in minute amounts of time.
  2. They are using behavioral science to back up their methods.
  3. They make their lectures or seminars interactive.
  4. They offer ways to back up the initial training via materials, recertification, or initiatives that institutionalize the learning.
  5. They do some form of needs assessment. One size fits all training (with no customization) is often regarded as out of touch by participants and misses nuances of each work environment. Example: Every hospital may have challenges with employee burnout, but the operational, regulatory, or environmental reasons why are often different.
  6. They admit the limitations of training. Training is vital, but it is only one piece of a larger organizational development puzzle.

There are many reasons why training fails and this article addresses only some of the more common ones. Today’s business world requires companies to be agile, responsive, frugal, and foster healthier/purpose driven work environments. Harvard, Princeton, Gallup, the American Preventative Medicine Association, and countless more organizations have found that training initiatives (the right ones) can provide game changing Return On Investment. Ineffective hiring, onboarding, and training practices can cripple performance, cause a talent drain, and destroy your bottom line. Training can be one of the most beneficial investments your organization can make. I hope this article helps you to ensure that the next training initiative you invest in, does exactly what you need it to.


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