Changing Behaviour without the Behaviourism

Changing behaviour is, if you follow the rhetoric, at the very core of corporate training. Kirkpatrick identifies behaviour change as the third of only four criteria for evaluating the success of a training program. The Training Industry just hosted a webinar on “Fostering Behaviour Change to Create a Lasting Business Impact.” Dick Grote, in his excellent How to Be Good at Performance Appraisals, discusses the importance of assessing behaviour from the performance appraisal point of view.

Depiction of workplace training.

Good training can influence personnel behaviour, but only if behaviour change is not the focus of the training program.

The argument is virtually impossible to refute: assuming a viable mission, vision, and business strategy, an organization’s success is directly dependent upon the behaviours of its personnel. If an organization is going to change, behaviours have to change. Then comes the belief that the ultimate goal of all training is to change personnel behaviour.

For folks who see corporate training as a sub-discipline of human resources, this might sound like common sense. For those of us who see corporate training as an application of educational psychology, however, the preceding paragraph sounds proverbial alarm bells. Now, to be fair, educational psychology has learned a lot from the HR-centric corporate trainers. The importance of distinguishing between formative and summative evaluations, the utility of portfolios, and competency-based learning are now established best practices in all modes of teaching, and they all have their roots in HR-centric corporate training. But by focussing training programs on behaviour, HR-centric training models are ignoring a century of research on how the brain learns.

It is true that for an organization to change, the behaviour of its personnel has to change. And it’s true that good training is the most powerful tool for ensuring that this happens. But over the past hundred years, educational psychology has learned an important truth: education is ineffective (and thus expensive and wasteful) when its goal is behaviour change. In this blog I’ll discuss how to make a training program effective in changing behaviour without making behaviour change its goal. I’ll review the past century of research that explains why this perspective is important. Finally, I’ll challenge the corporate training industry to do better by reframing its attitudes towards the relationship between corporate training and behaviour change.

Behaviourism: Old-Fashioned Education

Ivan Pavlov

Pavlov (the fellow with the famous dogs) was one of the founding fathers of behaviourism, the dominant theory of psychology and education a hundred years ago.

In the field of psychology, behaviourism is a school of thought that was widely popular during the first half of the twentieth century. It propounded that psychology should focus on observable, repeatable behaviour of subjects, rather than intangible, unobservable mental processes.

The application of behaviourism to education was clear: education should focus on behaviour. Good behaviours are reinforced; bad behaviours are discouraged or punished; and the result of education is, ideally, a learner who engages in good behaviours all of the time and in bad behaviours none of the time.

Now, we’re all familiar with the use of behaviourist techniques in the workplace. We constantly use language of behaviourism, describing techniques of reinforcement (incentives, praise, promotions, lifting probation, extending privileges, etc.) or, what is classically termed “punishment” (discipline, incident reports, removing privileges, probation, suspension, termination). Indeed, these techniques have a place in the workplace itself. People who do their jobs well should be rewarded. People who are not good at their jobs need to change or move on.

But in a training context, this philosophy doesn’t usually work. When behaviour becomes the centre of a training program, “right answers” are seen by the learner as “good behaviour” and “wrong answers” are seen as “bad behaviour.” The result is training that looks like this:

  • Rote learning and memorization is the norm—good retention is rewarded, bad retention results in discipline or “remedial action.”
  • Techniques and ideas to memorize are repeated and repeated and repeated until they’re perfect.
  • The trainer / facilitator / teacher is clearly in charge, and sets the standard for behaviour.
  • Learners do not question the standard of behaviour that is instilled in them.

Where it Works: the Army, Athletics, Equipment Handling

Trey Burke does a layup.

While some people are better at layups than others, there is basically only one right way to do a layup. Memory, repetition and practice are key to train in this “good behaviour.”

It’s a technique that works very well for certain types of training. When an army private is learning to throw a grenade, there’s only one good way to do it. It wouldn’t be a good idea for the private to question the technique or try to improve upon it.

Ditto just about any sport. The lay-up has been pretty much perfected, and you learn to do it by learning the right way and by doing it again and again. It’s unlikely that you can think of an improved slapshot. You can only practice the same slapshot again and again until it becomes a part of your neural make-up.

In the workplace, straight-up behaviourist training is vital to the safe operation of many types of equipment. Safe and effective handling procedures are often well-established; one does not want workers questioning these procedures or developing new ones on their own.

Where it Breaks Down: Everywhere Else

Beyond the examples listed above, behaviourist training is a poor idea in just about every arena of corporate training:

  • customer service representatives (CSRs) memorize rote responses to customers without engaging the customer personally;
  • managers will memorize solutions to pre-established problems and not be able to develop new solutions;
  • workers will memorize safety procedures without believing in them, buying into them, or developing a safe procedure on-the-fly for a situation that wasn’t addressed in training;
  • staff will memorize the list of “positive attributes,” “company values,” “warm fuzzies,” etc., and might even know how to stay below the radar by meeting all of the behavioural standards that indicate that the training has been successful—but will not be able to see how those values integrate into new training or initiatives.

Another problem with behaviourism is simply its reliance on memory (a consequence of the “right answers = good behaviour” paradigm). For most people, when ideas, concepts, words, etc. are memorized without being understood, they will be forgotten if they are not repeatedly used. I’d suggest that this is why 90% of all training is lost within a year.

So while it’s true that behaviour change might be desirable, one must not design a training program to change behaviour. A hundred years of educational psychology research tells us that such an approach will fail. And I, for one, believe that the prevalent behaviourist approach to training is a good reason why so much corporate training ultimately fails, ironically, to produce the behaviour change and results that are hoped for. Literally 90% of your training time and money gets wasted.

Let’s have a look at what professional educational psychology tells us about what is effective.

Cognitivism: The 2G Solution

Employees collaborating.

Cognitivist education tells us that if we want behaviour change, we have to focus our training initiatives on changing the way people think.

In psychology, cognitivism all but took over from behaviourism as the dominant perspective half a century ago. While behaviourism sees thinking as a discrete behaviour, cognitivists argue that thinking is what causes behaviour. From an education perspective, the goal of training, then, is not to change the way people behave, but rather, to change the way that they think.

Cognitivist education focusses on the idea that a learner’s pre-existing memories, feelings and experiences all influence how the learner perceives new information. If a learner has any hope of retaining training over the long-term, new learning must be incorporated into “existing schema.” In other words, new material needs to be taught in the context of what is already known.

The cognitivist approach demands that we start training not with the training itself, but by first demanding that the learner recall prior learning. We then root out misconceptions and gaps in knowledge. We finish by presenting new learning that fundamentally changes the way that the learner thinks.

For example:

  • instead of making workers memorize PPE necessary for a worksite, workers are presented with a list of hazards, asked to think about the risks associated with each, and to think about PPE that would minimize those risks. This thinking is then reinforced with direct instruction about the PPE that is necessary for the job.
  • instead of making CSRs memorize responses to customers in a variety of situations, CSRs are invited to think about their experiences as customers, and their experiences with customers—in other words, their memories are elicited. From these memories, they think about ideal customer service that would be in keeping with the organization’s mission and vision. This is reinforced with direct instruction about general principles of customer service.

An effective technique in working new information into a learner’s existing schema is cognitive dissonance. The learner is presented with surprising information that challenges their existing conceptions, and forcing them to re-think an idea. For example, if the goal of a training exercise is to get a group of Luddite middle managers to incorporate more social media into their marketing strategies, one might present them with any of the staggering statistics that demonstrate the positive effect that effective social media usage has on business. Having challenged the misconception that social media is a passing fad, the mind is primed to re-think the importance of social media in the marketing strategy.

By focussing your training program on how people think, rather than how they behave, you actually increase your chances of changing behaviour—and getting results—over both the short and long term. Some corporate trainers who consider themselves to be particularly “innovative” are actually simply using cognitivist strategies—which, next to behaviourist strategies, do indeed seem like revolutionary corporate training.

But educational psychology has actually progressed beyond cognitivism—and that progress can sometimes (but not always) be useful in corporate training.

Constructivism: Effective, Sometimes

Employees working at computers.

Constructivist education involves trainees actually constructing their own knowledge and ideas through experience. In some areas of corporate training, it works very well.

Constructivism is more of a theory of knowledge than a psychological principle, but the idea here is that the very best way to get anyone to learn anything is to have them experience it for themselves. They are actually involved in the construction of their own knowledge.

Using constructivism in corporate training can be highly effective in certain scenarios. CSRs might be asked to role play, or even shop in store branches in other locations, in order to develop their own ideas about effective customer service. Managers might work through a number of mock scenarios and debrief on their decisions in order to develop their own ideas as to what effective management looks like at their particular organization. By sharing their workplace experiences in group settings, a staff might develop their own core values that will inform how an organization will move into the future.

Constructivism is effective when the idea is to get learners to take complete ownership of their own learning and drive the direction of the organization. It is also effective when the goal of the training is for learners to take greater responsibility for making decisions, and to think critically in an infinite range of situations.

There are, however, some times when it is not effective:

  • Where safety is concerned. Constructivist principles would insist that workers, for example, experience the effects of muriatic acid in their eyes in order to construct, on their own, the idea that eye protection must be worn when working with muriatic acid. This is clearly ridiculous.
  • Where a specific outcome is required. If a goal of training is to get a CSR to greet a customer within thirty seconds of the customer entering a store, this principle must be taught explicitly. CSRs will not construct this idea on their own. A cognitivist approach of getting the CSR to think about the benefits of explicit customer contact, followed by explicit teaching of the thirty second rule, is more appropriate. The behaviourist approach of telling the CSR that they must greet the customer within thirty seconds, or else lose their job, will ultimately be ineffective.

Regardless of whether constructivist training is appropriate to the task or not, the point is that it is very effective—perhaps the most effective—training method for changing behaviour. But to make that behaviour change, we have to make construction of knowledge, not behaviour change the goal of the training program.

Connectivism: The Future of All Training?

Most controversially, some professional educators now think of learning from a connectivist framework. Connectivism is radically different from any theory of knowledge that came before it:

  • connectivism argues that knowledge is not just something that exists in an individual’s mind, but is found in networks—neurons within the mind, networks of people, communities of practice, books, computers, the internet, etc.;
  • the goal of education is to make meaningful connections between ideas, people and artifacts;
  • memorization is never important because knowledge never needs to exist in any individual’s mind—one can always look it up if the networks are properly linked;
  • training needs to focus on helping people to think critically about how to make appropriate connections—i.e. where to find information, how to use it, how to integrate it into existing schemas;
  • a part of the learning process is actually to forget information that is no longer useful.

In the connectivist point of view, people who are “walking encyclopedias” are not as useful as people who know how to find information quickly on Wikipedia. People who remember details are not as useful as people who can find details from reputable sources when they have to. A person who knows everything about a job is not as useful as a person who has ten good friends who, between the lot of them, know everything about a job.

Connectivism is not widely known in educational theory (yet). But its potential to inform the direction of certain types of corporate training, for certain industries, cannot be understated. Why teach a team of web developers best practices in coding, only to have to retrain them in six months? It is better to train them on the most reputable blogs, discussion threads and message boards that keep them continuously up-to-date on best practices, meaning that training only has to happen once. Why send regional managers on annual retreats to “network” and discuss new ideas, when a properly-developed social media tool can keep managers in constant contact and talking about relevant new practices? Why have workers memorize WHMIS symbols when performance supports, such as posters and pocket cards, can easily be made available for anyone who needs them (and, as with anything else, anything that gets used will be remembered anyway)?

The implications of connectivism are not yet understood—the research is in its infancy. Like cognitivism and constructivism, connectivist learning principles do change behaviour, but behaviour change is not their focus.


It is acceptable to admit that, ultimately, behaviour change of personnel is necessary to drive organizational change, and that training can drive the behavioural change. It is a grave error, however, to design training programs based upon behaviour change. This is an error that was made continuously until about sixty years ago among professional educators. Since then, we have discovered that training programs developed from a cognitivist framework (designed to change thinking), a constructivist framework (designed to teach through direct experience) or a connectivist framework (designed to access and use information on an as-needed basis) are better at changing behaviour than trying to change behaviour directly.

Unfortunately, much corporate training is behaviour-based training, partly because “changing behaviour” figures so strongly into corporate training rhetoric, and partly because behaviour-based learning is, perhaps, the most intuitive way to teach. It took professional educators a hundred years of constant, pain-staking study to develop cognitivist, constructivist and connectivist approaches.

As such, corporate trainers cannot be expected to know about these principles, or know how to use them, unless they have studied them explicitly and in detail.

One does not have to look too far to find corporations that bemoan the lack of retention and incomplete behaviour change that happens in the wake of their training programs. These problems lead to perceptions that most training is, in fact, a waste of time and money. But the truth is that behaviour can be changed and results can be achieved through good training. And the great irony is that, in order to accomplish a behaviour change, behaviour change cannot be the focus of a professionally-designed training program.

If you’re trying to change behaviour with training programs designed to change behaviour, you’re likely losing time and money.

Let McPherson Consulting and Training optimize your training program. Contact us for a free, no obligation estimate.