Most of our actions are determined by our environment. Whether at work or play, our environment dictates how we behave and respond more than most of us realize.
Brian Wansink is a leading academic in the field of nutrition and behavior. Wansink and his colleagues carried out some simple studies that suggest the reasons we eat have little to do with hunger and a tremendous amount to do with subtle environmental cues and influences. For instance, if you use a big spoon or serve yourself on a big plate, you’ll eat more. If you move the small bowl of chocolates on your desk six feet away, you’ll eat half as much. And the more people you eat with, the more you’ll eat.
Understanding this important principle can help in our work as training and development professionals. If we want to initiate change, drive performance and achieve our desired outcomes, then we need to focus on not just helping individuals change, but we also need to focus on helping change occur in their working environments.
Many observers have noted that changing people and then putting them back into an unchanged workplace is a definition of stupidity. Yet this is still the underlying premise in the design of many training courses today. For example, we might take a group of managers away from work to attend a leadership program, then send them back to the unchanged workplace in the expectation the away-from-work inspiration will result in their improved performance. This happens less often than we’d expect.
Why Most Development Programs Fail
Gurdjian, Halbeisen, and Lane at McKinsey & Company underpinned the importance of focusing on environment to achieve change when they found much of the value from the $14 billion invested annually in leadership development in the U.S. alone is lost due to some fundamental errors. The errors these researchers found with leadership development is echoed across training and development generally.
Context is Critical for Outcomes
The first error the McKinsey team found was overlooking context. At the individual level, the one-size-fits-all approach of many training and development initiatives fails to take important differences into account. At the organizational level, culture, organizational strategy or CEO mandate is often overlooked for a variety of reasons, such as it is seen as simply too difficult or a provider can only offer standard solutions. Failure to align with the environment to which participants will return is almost certain to lead to failure of any overall initiative.
Reflection is Critical for Outcomes
The second error the researchers identified was that reflection is decoupled from real work. It may be fun to design a program where participants discuss and reflect within the confines of the classroom, but reflection is more impactful if it takes place with our own colleagues, in our own work context. The closer to the point of use that learning occurs the more effective it is likely to be, and reflection that is tightly coupled to our work is likely to be more effective in changing our behavior than any away-from-work reflection activity.
The Importance of Mindset for Engagement and Outcomes
The McKinsey team termed the third error they identified as “underestimating mindsets.” Helping build capability through knowledge and skills is not enough. Changed behavior is the only evidence of learning and changed behavior relies on also changing attitudes, feelings, assumptions and beliefs. Your training team is likely to have more impact and see improved outcomes if it focuses on each of these elements and helps align them with organizational needs.
Learning is a lot like eating – multidimensional and relying on environmental influences more than we imagine. If we fail to consider the environment when we’re designing solutions, we’re likely to fail in our efforts to develop high-performing people and organizations.