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  • Making Training Stick: Ensure Your Culture Supports the Skills You’re Training

How well do the skills you’re training on in the classroom translate to desired behavior on the job? If you’re like most organizations, large and small, too few of those desired behaviors show up “in the wild” after training occurs. The problem is that participating in a training program doesn’t guarantee effective behaviors are applied in daily interactions.

Research on how to keep learners from forgetting and adult learning principles is readily available, yet it has not made a significant impact on the consistent application of desired learning.

The reality is that brilliant instructional design and effective facilitation could weave the three adult learning domains, the three adult learning styles, engaging skill practice, thorough sustainability tools, and more into a program’s delivery – and still not result in significant behavior change. The reason? Your work culture doesn’t support the skills being taught.

Culture is a powerful and often ignored element in how leaders and team members behave at work. It is a complex beast, defined by Edgar Schein as “the sum total of everything an organization has learned in its history in dealing with the external problems, which would be goals, strategy, how we do things, and how it organizes itself internally.”

Culture might quash desirable behaviors by reinforcing current practices, processes and behaviors – even if they’re ineffective, pit people against each other and worse.

For example, when I facilitate leadership programs, participants learn a proven leadership model that helps leaders serve team members’ needs, which vary based on the goals or tasks those team members face in that moment. Team members might be totally on top of it – skilled and enthused – for one task, yet for a different task might be excited but not have the skills to perform well without supervision.

Teaching leaders to engage in dialogue to assess their team members’ skills and enthusiasm for a task or two is doable. However, if the culture of the organization doesn’t support this dialogue or doesn’t encourage team members to be honest about what they bring to a task, it doesn’t matter that the training built those skills in the leaders. The culture will quash any attempt to apply them.

The other side of the coin is that culture can reinforce desirable practices, processes and behaviors, as well. We’ve seen and studied purposeful, positive, productive work cultures like WD-40 Company, Ritz Carlton Hotels, Starbucks, Zappos, Assurance and others. We know they exist; we just might not enjoy one in our current organizations.

What should you do, as an instructional designer and/or facilitator, charged with presenting effective programs to build new skills, when faced with a culture that doesn’t support those new skills?

Hoping your brilliant design and facilitation will break the bonds of your current culture isn’t going to result in much traction on desired behaviors, in the short or long term. You need to help your culture evolve. Help refine systems to measure desired skills and behaviors. You may not be in charge of those systems, but you can coach the senior leaders who are. You’re not suggesting that old systems are thrown out. You’re suggesting the addition of a measurement system to determine how well desired behaviors and skills are demonstrated going forward.

Measurement – and reinforcement – of desired behaviors and skills will shift your culture. It’ll take time – six to 12 months, in my and my clients’ experience – but you were going to be there anyway, right?

Avoid the temptation to “just” design and facilitate effective courses. Help evolve your culture by changing expectations and measuring desired behaviors over time. Measuring – and rewarding – desired behaviors will not only ensure those skills are applied but will also change the work culture, day by day, by helping it “learn" more effective ways of operating and creating more effective norms, problem-solving approaches, strategies and practices.

It’s much more involved than training alone, but it’s amazingly gratifying – and way more fun – for the designer, facilitator and learners.

S. Chris Edmonds is a speaker, author, executive consultant, and CEO and founder of The Purposeful Culture Group. He's one of Inc. Magazine’s 100 Great Leadership Speakers and shares organizational culture, servant leadership and workplace inspiration at @scedmonds and on YouTube and Vimeo.

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