Most people seek novelty in their lives and want to develop and grow. Doing so requires a motivation to learn and an openness to change, but most training programs are unintentionally designed to do the opposite. Based on our 30 years of published behavioral, neurological and hormonal research on the effect of coaching and helping on sustained change, here are a few points that may seem counterintuitive for some and obvious to others. Avoiding these mistakes may be common sense, but it is uncommon in practice.

1. Providing Data-based Feedback as a Motivator for Change

When participants receive data-based feedback (i.e., an assessment center, 360-degree assessments, interviews, etc.) early in a development program, they tend to immediately focus on the negative results or their weaknesses. The feedback becomes a source of a negative emotional attractor (NEA) state: People feel defensive and become neurologically and hormonally closed to new ideas.

2. Assuming Goals Are More Motivating Than Values and Vision

Specific goals are useful later in the change process. If they are the focus of the training program or if learners see them as the context for future work on change, the goals will often backfire. Specific goals invoke a need to prove that “you can do it,” which arouses the NEA state and the body and mind’s defensive posture, thereby making the change effort short lived and not sustainable.

This response is why most training programs have a “honeymoon effect,” in which some change occurs for anywhere from three weeks to three months, only to dissipate later. To put it more positively, dreams and personal vision should be the context for change, not specific goals. Research shows that dreams and vision stimulate the motivation for intentional change.

3. Believing Participants Can Process Feedback and Understand the Implications of Their Experiences Alone

Participants often try to fit their experiences and feedback during training programs into their own model of themselves. When this process invokes defensiveness, however mild, it keeps the person from considering disconfirming information. He or she dismisses new information as erroneous.

Personal, one-on-one coaching to interpret feedback results is crucial to helping individuals consider information that is, in any way, different from their beliefs about themselves, whether positive (strengths) or negative (weaknesses).

4. Relying on Reminding Participants About Their Goals After Training to Support Change and Development

Change is stressful. We need something to bring us back to the positive emotional attractor (PEA) state on a regular basis. One way is to remind people about their personal vision so that the larger context of meaning and purpose in their life will give energy to the change effort.

The other way is to have ongoing interactions with a set of people with whom the participant has resonant relationships. We call this approach peer coaching. It is, perhaps, the most enduring form of development that can lead to culture change.

5. Requiring All Executives and Managers to Attend Training to Create a New Culture of Development

When a training program is mandatory, participants may feel defensive, if not angry, during and after the training. As a result, they can close themselves off to whatever messages they received in the training and build resistance to the aspired culture change. L&D leaders should, instead, position training as an opportunity for participants to develop, grow and improve the organization.

Organizations can easily avoid each of these five mistakes, but tradition can inhibit adaptation at both the individual and the organizational levels. The antidotes are less expensive to implement, and the benefit-to-cost ratio improves sustained learning and the ROI of training dramatically.

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