For more than a decade, I worked in prisons trying to change hardened criminals’ behavior. Fifteen years later, I’m still in the behavior change business, but I work with CEOs and senior executives. And you know what? It’s no easier.
Success rates for behavior change programs designed to stop offending among persistent criminals are low. Among one-time offenders, the success rates are higher. But the success rates for development and behavior change programs among employees are not much better.
Even the most optimistic estimates of how much learning transfers from development workshops into real behavior change back in the workplace do not go much beyond 34 percent. Only 19 percent of HR professionals believe the coaching going on in their business is effective. Why? Because whether you’re a seasoned criminal or an experienced executive, changing your behavior is tough.
The work to stop reoffending in criminals can teach us how to improve success rates for organizational learning and development initiatives. When researchers look at the difference between those who reoffend and those who don’t, two major factors stand out. First, treatment or attending some kind of change program seems to help. Second, the context and life circumstances individuals return to after attending a change program or being in prison are critical. No matter how well-intentioned, well-treated and rehabilitated criminals were, if they have little family support, poor personal relationships, friends who are criminals, job and housing problems, it’s much harder to stay on the right side of the law.
This is not specific to reoffending in criminals, either. Research from almost every type of behavior change intervention you can imagine shows the same thing. The context and environment that people live and function in from day to day has to support new, desired behaviors if they are to stand a decent chance of being sustained. If it doesn’t, chances are the new behaviors won’t take hold.
This is just as true in organizations for learning and development as it is for other behavior change interventions. It’s why one of the most consistent findings from research into the effectiveness of development activities such as coaching and training is that contextual factors — what happens outside the coaching or training room — are more important in ensuring behavior change happens than the quality of the training, development workshop or coaching. Yet the vast majority of businesses largely ignore context, which most researchers agree is the most important to ensure developmental activity success.
Why do organizations largely ignore context? Two reasons stand out. First, although the research points to a mass of possible contextual factors that could accelerate development, there is no one model that captures them all easily. So there has been no simple way for business and its leaders to clearly understand what context means.
Second, there is a lack of clarity around what to do about it: How can firms practically improve context for development? The key challenge here is the single most significant part of anyone’s work context is the manager. So any solution would need to be something simple that managers could deliver during their day-to-day activities, without requiring much extra time.
International Institute for Management Development professor Shlomo Ben-Hur and I have been working with businesses to try and resolve these issues. We have developed a model that helps define what these contextual factors are — things like motivation, ability and social support — and a set of tools to help equip managers, who are the frontline for all learning and development, with techniques they can use quickly and easily to help support and accelerate people’s development.
But models, tools and techniques are only useful if you use them. First, it requires a change in the mindset businesses approach accelerating development with. To help people fulfill their potential and make the most of the extra development provided to them, organizations need to start addressing the last and most important piece of the puzzle. They need to insert context into the equation.
Nik Kinley is a director and head of talent strategy for YSC, a global leadership consultancy, and author of “Changing Employee Behavior: A Practical Guide for Managers.” Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.