Do People Ever Really Change?

I had just completed a two-day workshop developing front-line leaders for a major Australian corporation.  The program, rolled out nationally and ongoing over several years, was judged a huge success.  Participants loved it and the feedback was great from across the business so I had no trepidation in collecting feedback sheets.  I knew they’d be just fine, and they were.  Except for one recurring problem.

Although everyone had enjoyed it, several participants commented along the lines of Great refresh of stuff I already knew, Good to go over some fundamentals again, Fantastic to revisit good management practices.

I knew that about three quarters of the course content was new to the participants.  So why did some of them think it was a refresher?

The Dreaded Comfort Zone

Several months later, I met the same group for the next workshop and asked them to recall what they had learned previously and what they had put into practice.  Sure enough, the majority focused on the content that was well-known to them principles of giving feedback, structuring a feedback session, and so on.

Concepts that were new to them may just as well have not been covered at all.  There was very little recollection or application.

It was clear that the familiar materials were the ones they latched onto whereas anything that was unfamiliar was enjoyable and interesting but had not sunk in.  In summary then, the value of the workshop may have been in improving what they were already doing but not in instigating any significant change. 

Does Change Matter?

One might ask whether any of that matters.  Surely if we get some skills improvement then its been worthwhile?

Well, yes, perhaps but only marginally.  The fact is that, although the program was viewed as a big success, in my opinion it never really achieved the mindset and behavioural shifts that were originally hoped for.  And that does matter.  Because if all we can hope for from professional development programs is incremental shifts in existing skills, then that’s a very small return on investment.

Why Is It Hard To Change What We Do?

Perhaps the simplest answer to this is that we are creatures of habit and once we have learned a behaviour, particularly one that brings us some kind of reward, its hard to change it. 

Think about what you do each day when you arrive at work.  For knowledge workers, we usually switch on the computer, get a coffee, chat to our colleagues and check emails.  Universally.  Its as though someone has been cleverly training people to do these four things every day for years.  Changing even this routine (if one wanted to) is very difficult.

Change, then, involves replacing old behaviours or developing new behaviours.  And that needs several ingredients knowledge (of what to do differently), time to put it into practice, structured support and feedback, and the mindset that this matters.

What Doesn’t Work

Professional development courses will typically invite people to try out new things through various in-class activities.  Then everyone goes back to work and reverts to doing what they’ve always done while resolving to re-read that really interesting course material someday.  We’ve all done it.

So that doesn’t work very well.  There are ways to improve workshops multiple learning modalities, focusing on a small number of key things, and at least attempting to get new thinking to drive new behaviour rather than just hoping for new behaviour all on its own.

Five Things That Do Work

Well-designed and targeted workshops have an important role to play as.  They provide the first of the ingredients the knowledge of what can be changed.  But they’re not enough.

Here are five practical ideas that can really make a difference:


Its well established that coaching can make a very significant difference to the degree to which learning is applied and embedded.  It provides a supportive yet challenging forum to reflect on our patterns, identify what well do differently and hold ourselves to account for doing so.

Workplace Application

Real learning takes place over time, so we need to intentionally apply lessons learned in real-world situations, over time.

Line Manager Support

Given the influence of the line manager, if they are not interested or involved then theres very little incentive for the participant to put energy into applying what they have learned.  Indeed, an uninterested line manager is an active disincentive.

Measuring Change

As the old saying goes, you cant manage what you cant measure.  Whether by self-assessment, feedback, observation, task assessment or some other mechanism, if participants know that they will be measured over time then it puts a new perspective on applying learning. 

Executive Involvement

There’s nothing as powerful as the CEO and other executives saying publicly and meaningfully that they value the program.  Even better if they say it more than once and over an extended time period, and demonstrate their support.  (By the way, this really helps with getting line managers to buy in too!).

Combining all five is a great way to give oomph to a professional development program.  Conversely, removing any of these elements weakens it and makes it more likely that team members will look back wistfully and murmur, Yeah, it was a good refresher of stuff I already knew.


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