Why Training & Development Programs Fail: Mastering the Real Drivers of Behavioural Change

By Heather Hilliard

Every organization wants to maximize the potential of their people in order to achieve superior results. In fact, significant investments are made in programs that aim to improve performance by changing the way leaders, employees or teams behave. However, research shows that most development programs fail to deliver expected returns.

We now know so much about how the brain learns and how people develop. Recent advances in neuroscience are highlighting connections between cognitive and emotional functions that have the potential to revolutionize the way we approach development. In particular, we now understand the relationship between learning and emotions, and what needs to happen in the brain for behavioural change to take place.

As humans, we are meant to develop. However, we are likely to continue to waste countless dollars annually when we do not expect those tasked with our development to understand the mechanics of our mind, how our brains develop, and how emotions get in the way of successful implementation of new learning. By looking at the key reasons why training fails, organizations can better prepare to set up the circumstances for sustainable development to happen.

Reason #1:
Emphasis on Rational Brain & Passive Learning
Content laden training, which only engages learners rationally, continues to be widely used. While this approach is palatable to decision-makers—hence its popularity—it has the least success in changing behaviour. Taking in information is a passive activity that involves our short term memory, so it’s easily forgotten.

Few trainers understand how the brain develops and what it actually takes to create new habits of mind. Our brains are designed for experiential learning over time, so the only way to change behaviour is by creating new neural pathways in the brain through repeated and frequent experiences that lead to mastery. It also requires changing emotionally-driven patterns and unconscious habits of mind that get in the way of development.

Reason #2:
Ignoring Emotions and Needs
As much as we would like to believe that development is solely a cognitive activity that on its own can produce changes in behaviour, the reality is that we are emotional, social beings. Emotions are critical to successful learning and neural patterning that leads to behavioural change. Positive emotions enhance the learning experience, fostering curiosity and increased retention. Negative emotions shut down the learning process, triggering a flight or fight response—which often occurs without the awareness of either the participant or the facilitator.

Training approaches need to provide for the emotional security of participants if they are to be effective. This includes creating safe learning environments, talking about negative emotions and their impact on learning, as well as attending to the fears and emotional barriers participants are experiencing. However, if you do not understand the psychological needs and innate fears of participants, the self-protective system in their brain gets activated and shifts their focus to surviving the experience—rather than engaging in the learning.

Reason #3:
No Consideration of Brain Organization
We now know that our brain has four functions of consciousness (Jung) that are rooted in a different quadrant of the brain (Sperry, Hermann, Benziger) and access a unique set of abilities. Unfortunately, how our brains are organized, how they function and what it takes to develop them is not incorporated in most training programs.

If we try to learn skills associated with a quadrant of our brain that we have not built connections to, it takes more energy to retrieve what we have learned and it’s just easier to go with our automatic patterns of behaviour. While our brains are capable of creating new pathways, just knowing what we need to do doesn’t change our habits of mind.

A Whole-Person Approach to Training & Development
Increasingly, organizations are using a new paradigm for developing their people. Rather than focusing on  behavioural competency, new approaches are people-centered, concentrating on what people need to be successful first.

Increasingly, organizations are using a new paradigm for developing their people. Rather than focusing on  behavioural competency, new approaches are people-centered, concentrating on what people need to be successful first. Instead of using assessments that focus on strengths/weaknesses or preferences, a whole-person approach provides participants with awareness of their nature, innate needs, brain organization and their unconscious patterns of behaviour and emotions that get in the way of development, despite their best intentions. This allows them to know ‘how’ they process information and what gets in the way (fear, embarrassment, etc.) of trying new behaviours and shifting from unproductive reactions to other people and work situations. 

When we create development programs with the whole person in mind, we understand and address the innate needs of the people being trained, as well as focus on what it actually takes to rewire the brain. It means we develop the whole person, not just their behaviour, leading to sustained behavioural change.

Heather Hilliard is an expert in personality and behavioural change. She is the co-creator of the Striving Styles Personality System (www.StrivingStyles.com) and co-author of the book, Who Are You Meant to Be? [heather@strivingstyles.com]. Heather will be presenting at Speaker’s Corner at the HRMA Conference + Tradeshow


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