The Best Way to Change Habits Through Workforce Learning

December 9, 2016

One of the main goals of all L&D pros is to change behavior among employees.

I have yet to see a single training or learning solution that is not ultimately about changing behavior. It doesn’t matter if we’re focusing on technical skills or people skills or leadership; we’re trying to help people perform optimally in their workplace.

The good news is that every skill is learnable – neuroscientists have proven that definitively. Our brains are incredibly flexible and are able to form new neural pathways throughout our lifespan. The more we practice a skill, the better we get. And in fact, once we do a behavior enough times, it becomes a habit.

Consider how you currently use a computer or drive a car. When you first started doing those skills, you probably had to think about them but can now do them on autopilot. The basal ganglia is the brain structure that is responsible for that shift.

Researchers at the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department at MIT discovered that the basal ganglia’s purpose is to save brain energy, something that scientists measure in glucose burn. Study after study shows that when we repeat behaviors, the basal ganglia turns that routine into a habit, taking less cognitive energy and freeing up our brain for other important tasks like logical analysis and learning.

Our professional lives are filled with habits, including how you manage your time, how you approach meetings, how you complete a project and how you lead and manage others. With adult learners, the reality is that we are very rarely creating new behavior in a vacuum. Rather, we are shifting people from a habit they already have – one that is well-grooved and comfortable – and moving them to a new, better behavior that we hope to turn in to a habit.

Unfortunately, most learning initiatives are not designed as habit-shifting experiences, which can make them ineffective in the long run. When we are trying to create behavior change, we need to think about the habits that are currently in place and how to make the new behavior more compelling than the comfort of the current one.

Think of yourself as a habit designer and use these three tips for creating lasting behavior change:

1. Get clear about the new habit you are trying to create.

It’s imperative that learning professionals get really crisp on what the ideal behavior looks like. Before you can cultivate any new behavior in your learners, you need to first identify the words and actions they ideally should be using out on their jobs. All of my learning design starts with identifying the behavior I hope to instill, and I work backward from there.

In addition, you need to identify the three main structures of every habit: the cue, the routine and the reward. The cue is the trigger that tells someone to start the behavior. For example, when your direct report arrives in your office, that is the cue to start the behavior for coaching or a one-on-one meeting.

Next is the routine, which are the words and actions that comprise the skill or behavior. This would be assessing whether your employee needs skills or clarity coaching, and engaging in the right blend of questions and suggestions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the reward. The basal ganglia needs a reward for completing the routine in order to create a habit loop.

Here are some common examples. You wake up (cue), you make coffee (routine), and you get a reward (delicious boost of caffeine). You turn on your computer (cue), you log in to your email (routine) and you get the reward of information and productivity. Employee arrives in office (cue), you provide coaching (routine) and you get the reward of a more competence colleague and the feeling that you helped someone.

If you want to create behavior change, you first need to get clear on the cue, routine and reward that are currently in place. If you know what they’re doing today, you can design a powerful learning solution that moves them from here to there, creating a bridge across to the ideal habit.

2. Empower practice to build the habit.

The next critical step is to help your talent PRACTICE those optimal behaviors enough times so that the right habit is formed. And this is where most of the training I observe falls down.

The biggest mistake learning professionals make is thinking that talking about a behavior is the same thing as DOING the behavior. It is not, which is why many learning events are ineffective in the long run.

Getting better at something takes practice. Period. Sure, you can convey information quickly, but the skills that require instruction – the ones that really drive the innovation and strategy in your organization – require practice. Practice is how we build those neural pathways and turn behaviors into habits. Practice is also how we hone and improve our skills, developing mastery over time.

Repetition is the key for habit formation. Hebb’s Law states “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” making the neural pathway stronger to the point that researchers can measure the neurons growing thicker. Studies show that it takes, on average, 40 to 50 repetitions to build a habit.

If it’s a behavior they do once per day, then it will take about 40 work days or 8 weeks before it gets easier and the basal ganglia can run it on autopilot. If it’s a weekly behavior, then it could take 10 months.

Until you get to enough repetitions, the new behavior takes effort and concentration, which can be very frustrating to employees who see the change as a roadblock to doing their work quickly. In other words, it’s the opposite of a reward.

As a result, it’s imperative that we build practice time into our learning events. It’s really the only way we can:

  • Guarantee that it happens.
  • Help build those desired behaviors and habits so they can be repeated out on the job.
  • Ensure that things are done correctly, because we can coach and instruct to improvement.

Let’s consider the example of management training. Managers control most of the elements that drive employee engagement and performance and management training is probably one of THE most valuable investments an organization makes.

Managing is a habit like anything else. And while we can ask managers to attend training, they can still do their old behaviors, or habits, when they get back to their desks. In fact, they’re very likely to because the pressure of the job is going to make them default to their entrenched habits.

The only real way you can drive behavior change is to have them PRACTICE better management behaviors. This means that instead of just talking about what makes a good one-on-one meeting or performance coaching, they need to actually practice the words and actions in real time, with another person. Each practice starts grooving the new neural pathway. And the closer they get to 40 to 50 repetitions, the more likely you are to see real behavior change.

This is why I encourage learning professionals to rethink how they approach learning. We need to really focus in on instruction and practice. And the time we have with learners is best spent on developing new habits rather than imparting information.

I like to flip the classroom and have employees learn content ahead of time, for example, watching an online course. And then use the time we have together in person to hone in on practice and behavior change.

3. Leverage innovative learning design and technology

There are many ways you can build practice into your learning strategy. These range from the low tech and inexpensive to the elaborate and costly, but they’ll all deliver great value or return on investment. Let’s explore some options:

  • Have people practice skills within your learning events. Whether it’s using software, giving performance feedback or managing a project, just trying the behavior a few times is very effective. I’ve found that 5 to 10 minutes is plenty of time. And if it’s a complex skill, like coaching employees, I break the skill into smaller steps and we practice each step and then string them together.
  • You can also pair people up to practice outside of your learning event. This not only creates accountability, it helps transfer the learning into the real work environment. I have people practice in the room and then assign those partners or groups a couple more sessions that they need to report on. This also works with people who are geographically dispersed. An added bonus is that you help them build new relationships with colleagues.
  • Many of us really benefit from first seeing a behavior done well by an expert. Modeling ideal behavior is powerful and can give your talent the goal to aim for. One of my favorite tools is by a company called It allows you to use the power of interactive video to demonstrate ideal behaviors as well as create an environment for learners to receive authentic assessment and coaching.
  • You can also create realistic practice environments for your talent. We all have access to low-tech role-playing, which are quite effective. But now, technology can create lifelike virtual scenarios that replicate the realities of the job in a safe situation, also known as immersive training simulators. Check out companies like Mursion, Cubic and SilVRthread. Since the graphics are so realistic, the brain and body get a very “real” experience of practice that actually activates the same neural pathway.
  • Another effective option is to use adaptive learning. Companies like Amplifire and Area 9 can create learning solutions that are unique to each person, meeting their skill level at the starting point and then progressing on pace with that individual. They include features to practice in safe but realistic scenarios.

These are just a few examples of innovative learning solutions that support practice and develop habits.

Learning how to create real and lasting behavior change will not only up level the skills of your talent, it will allow you organization to reach its full potential. If you want to learn more, please watch my new course for free, Organizational Learning & Development.