As learning and development professionals have long recognized, different people learn in different ways. For instance, some people learn more effectively by watching videos or visual presentations, while others respond to a more hands-on tactical approach. But what about differences in behavioral style? Just as people process information in different ways, they also behave and respond to the behavior of others in unique but predictable ways.
Unlike learning style — how people cognitively process information — behavioral style is more easily understood and visible to others because it is a function of people’s common behavioral patterns and preferences. Behavioral style can be seen and described, whereas it is more difficult to assess people’s learning styles — many people themselves are unaware of their own learning preferences. One of the visible indicators of behavioral style is outgoingness. Some people are naturally friendly and outspoken. Others are quiet and reserved. Another indicator is pace. Some act quickly, while others prefer to carefully consider all options.
The most effective learning efforts address both learning style and behavioral style. Doing so leads to better reinforcement of learning and more productive teams and organizations. While learning style and behavioral style affect how people learn, behavioral style affects how they display what they’ve learned, as well as the effectiveness of reinforcement initiatives like social learning. For example, a sociable and outgoing person will be excited about what he or she has learned and will want to share the information with others. This person is more likely to actively display newly learned skills and to seek out social learning sites for reinforcement of learning as well as to share his or her experiences with others. No matter what the specific content of learning, people use what they’ve learned back on the job, and they do this in style-specific ways that impact team and organizational effectiveness.
Applying Behavioral Style in Learning
Because one’s behavior is visible to others, an organization — or for that matter an individual trainer, manager or coach — can offer resources that suit the needs of all behavioral styles. For instance, some people prefer to learn primarily on their own and at their own pace. They don’t thrive on learning in groups or through team interaction. These individuals should be allowed opportunities to develop themselves through self-study, at least in part, before attending a group training program. Since this is their natural preference, they will learn more effectively this way and in turn will display new skills more consistently on the job.
Consider other examples of how to tailor learning programs to behavioral patterns:
Provide learning motivation: Generating motivation and commitment to participate in learning programs is achieved by different means for each style. For those who are focused on results and want to see a payback on the time and effort they will invest, demonstrating specific near-term benefits will earn interest. For those who value facts and logic, provide case studies and fact-based support documenting the importance of the learning. And don’t force these types to act too quickly; give them time to gather information and reach a solid conclusion.
Putting a personal spin on a program will build motivation from communicative types who like recognition. Testimonials or recommendations from past participants will appeal to learners who like to know what’s in it for them. Emphasizing relationship-enhancing or team-building aspects will appeal to learners who are already naturally supportive of such collaborative initiatives.
While it may seem challenging to try to motivate different people in different ways, it is fairly easy to accomplish. For example, a single marketing piece can contain elements as described above that appeal to people of each behavioral style. This way, each style gets what they need and is therefore motivated to attend while not alienating any particular style. The biggest mistake is to use a one-size-fits-all approach and develop a learning marketing program that only reflects a single behavioral style. This will all but ensure a lack of enthusiasm and motivation for some people.
The learning experience: Just as motivation is gained through style-specific methods, the learning experience itself should also reflect style preferences. Once again, the key is to balance the types of activities within a training program. People with more emotive behavioral styles like to be actively engaged in their learning experiences. They learn best through social exchange, so including experiential and group activities will help keep them motivated and engaged. For those of different styles, balance these group activities with lecture and self-study. Clearly describe how the learning program will benefit people back on the job. By balancing activities, the needs of people with different behavioral styles are being met.
Reinforce concepts through social learning: When designing post-learning support, make sure the available resources reflect the spectrum of behavioral preferences, for the same reasons the learning program itself should appeal to each of the styles. For instance, the ability to post comments and share tips reinforces the learning experience and makes it tangible in the workplace, and this type of social learning mechanism can easily be designed to appeal to people of all behavioral styles. Socially reserved people will not necessarily want to take part in follow-up group activities, but may be highly motivated to follow an online discussion forum. This allows them to learn from others, at their own pace, and share their knowledge without having to do so in front of a live group where they might be uncomfortable.
The same type of discussion forums appeal to the more outgoing learners as well, but in different ways. These individuals will appreciate the opportunity to be part of a social group and showcase their new abilities. Results-oriented and factual people are less interested in collaboration for its own sake but appreciate brief tips that provide quick and easy-to-apply advice around the new learning. Those focused on results will typically prefer an easy-to-navigate interface with short tips, while the fact-focused person often will want a more thorough discussion of the issue at hand.
Just as individuals have innate learning styles, they also have behavioral styles that need to be taken into account when creating learning initiatives. Armed with this understanding, learning leaders can take steps to plan their programs with behavioral styles in mind. Combining behavioral styles with learning styles enables learning executives to build an effective, persistent learning environment and high-performance culture.
Casey Mulqueen is director of research and product development for The TRACOM Group.