Driving Behavior Change

“The problem in my life and other people’s lives is not the absence of knowing what to do, but the absence of doing it.”
―Peter Drucker, Writer, Management Consultant, Social Ecologist

What really drives behavior change? Is it the well-designed training program? Is it the consistent support provided by the manager? Is it the ample opportunities to practice the desired behavior?

As instructional designers we tend to focus on these extrinsic components to create a conducive environment to change behavior. However, in an environment where change is the norm, it has become increasingly necessary to focus on the intrinsic. In essence, what must occur within the learner’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs to ignite a change in their behavior?

These thoughts, feelings, and beliefs play a powerful role in our behavior. They present the truths that we hold dear about our capabilities and the way the world works. They are in fact what drives our actions and creates the impetus to change. Let’s review some research from two individuals that provides evidence of this concept.

Shawn Anchor, author of The Happiness Advantage, spent years researching and lecturing at Harvard University. He argues that happiness promotes our success rather than the conventional wisdom of working hard to achieve success. Focusing on positive thoughts, feelings, and beliefs triggers our brains to become more “engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.” The more “turned on” our brains are, the better equipped we are to change behavior. Imagine if our learners’ brains embraced such a positive outlook. How might this impact their adoption of new behaviors?

And while happiness can encourage our openness to change behavior, the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs we have about ourselves and others can actually hinder it. Alan Fine, author of You Already Know How to Be Great, calls these existing thoughts “interference” and suggests that we should eliminate the interference that typically gets in the way of acting on the knowledge we already have. For example, when we see a manager who has to have her way, we tend to think she’s arrogant and doesn’t care what her team thinks. How might this type of manager impact an employee’s ability to focus on changing behavior? Probably not a lot. Thus, these interfering thoughts, feelings, and beliefs can limit our performance.

Focusing on the learner’s state of mind is critical to changing behavior. The question then becomes how to best ensure that learners’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are primed for change. Below are a few thought starters, but we would love to hear your ideas.

  • When designing learning programs, use activities such as scenarios and role plays to demonstrate how thoughts, feelings, and beliefs impact behavior. For example, a coaching conversation looks very different when the coach has positive rather than negative thoughts and feelings. Oftentimes awareness is the first step to changing behavior.
  • Ensure that learners are tapped into their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs at all stages of the learning program. Give learners time to reflect on their inner state before they even begin, so they are primed to take ownership of their emotions around their own performance. The goal is to identify their own interference so they may determine how best to manage it.
  • Build time into the training program for learners to focus on building positive thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. This may include designated time to write down one positive experience from the past 24 hours to help focus on the meaning of interactions rather than endless tasks. Or, learners could write a quick thought on a post-it note (or post on a discussion board) thanking or applauding a fellow learner to help others feel a connection.

These are just a few examples of ways we can help prime learners’ internal state for behavior change. By helping them focus their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs on the positive, they will be better equipped to foster change.

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