You’re ready to roll out a new training program. You’re excited by the subject matter, what your employees will learn and all the new skills they’ll have. But have you thought about what they might need to unlearn first?
Learning new things is easy. Adopting new behaviors as a result of that knowledge is harder. To help your employees change their behaviors, you need to understand not only how we learn but also how we unlearn.
Most people are aware that new habits take a while to form. You have to practice them repeatedly until you can do them without having to think about them. The same is true for unlearning. Extinguishing old behaviors is a process that takes time and repetition. If you focus all your energy on teaching new habits but fail to extinguish the old ones, employees will resort to their old ways. Thus, unlearning is just as important as learning is.
How does unlearning occur? We have decades of behavioral research on this exact question. A Google Scholar search on “behavioral extinction conditioning” brings up more than 107,000 articles on this subject going back to the 1930s. What we now know is that all unlearning in every animal or organism ever studied follows a similar pattern.
Conditioning Behavioral Extinction
To extinguish an unwanted behavior several things have to happen. First, you have to stop rewarding the behavior you want to extinguish. This causes people to escalate their behavior in an attempt to regain the reward. This escalation of behavior is called an extinction burst, or if it is severe enough, a blowout. If the behavior continues to not result in a reward despite the escalation, eventually the behavior will stop or extinguish.
For example, think about what happens when we try to use a broken vending machine. Pretty much everyone will escalate their behavior to try and get their reward. Maybe they push a few buttons or bang on the machine. Some people get really upset and agitated. This happens to most of us when what we are used to doing no longer works. The longer a habit has been established and the more variable the response to that habit is, the bigger the extinction blow out will be.
Changing the Way We Train
The fact that everyone resists change to some degree doesn’t mean your staff is bad or uncooperative. They literally can’t help themselves. It’s part of the process we all have to go through when we unlearn old habits. If you want your employees to change their behavior, you need to account for the predicted escalation of unwanted behavior when designing training.
For example, if you are in a large organization, you probably provide some kind of harassment training. This training teaches that harassment and discrimination is against the law, so employees shouldn’t do it, and what their legal obligations are to report and respond to harassment when or if it occurs.
While this information is all useful, it doesn’t do anything to change anyone’s behavior. Despite providing this training for decades, pretty much every company of every size still has a problem with bullying, harassment and discrimination.
If we actually wanted to eliminate harassing behavior, we would still provide training on the legal information, but we would supplement it with a behavioral training that would teach people how to extinguish unwanted, harassing behavior. We would also be prepared to follow up and support the behavioral change process over time as people experiment with the new skills and unlearn their old counterproductive behaviors.
This is no small undertaking. To be successful, it requires process changes throughout an organization to support the behavioral change dynamic that has to take place over time. Regardless of what you are training and what behavioral changes you want to see, you can help your staff by setting up training programs to ensure both their learning and unlearning needs are taken into account.
People being asked to adopt new behaviors need your compassion as they cope with and cycle through the behavioral extinction process. With new learning, people need repetition over time for new habits to be formed. For unlearning, they need the old ways to no longer work so they have no choice but to cycle through the extinction process as quickly as possible.
Jennifer Hancock is the founder of Humanist Learning Systems. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.