L&D leaders often struggle to get employees to apply new knowledge on the job. If employees retain and apply only 1/3 of what they learn at work, how can L&D leaders drive this statistic up and actually change employee behavior?
New research in psychology and neuroscience combined with innovative approaches by L&D leaders set the stage for rethinking how L&D can impact behavior change in the workplace. In our toolkit, 5 Ways to Change Behavior at Work: The L&D Behavior Change Toolkit, we offer a new framework to help L&D more effectively influence employee behavior.

The psychology of behavior change

Behavior change is well-documented by psychologists and neuroscientists, particularly for health and lifestyle audiences trying to give up smoking or change their diet. This research provides a wealth of information to draw upon as you design your L&D programs.
In particular, MIT neuroscience research provides new insights into how the brain adopts new habits. Ann Graybiel, an MIT neuroscientist, discovered that neuron firing patterns in the brain change as animals learn a new habit. This neuroscience research has laid the groundwork for understanding how the human brain works as well. Essentially, when people learn a new habit, neurons fire continuously throughout a task. When a person gets better at a task, the firing of the neurons become clustered at the beginning and the end of the task. As these neuron pathways become ingrained in the brain through repetition, the habit then becomes second nature and permanently wired into a person’s brain.
How long does it take to adopt a new habit? It takes 2 months on average before a new behavior becomes automatic, according to research by Phillippa Lally at the University College in London.

If the research shows it takes repetitive tasks for a habit to form in the brain and at least 2 months to change behavior, clearly a one-time workshop is not going to do the trick.
In our new toolkit, we provide 5 ways L&D can change employee behavior, here are 3 of them.

3 ways to change employee behavior

1. Learning is a process, not a one-time event

L&D research demonstrates effective training is highly iterative and involves everything leading up to and after the training event. A key element of an effective L&D behavior change framework is to create learning as a process, not a one-time event. This could involve continuous blended learning that combines online learning, social learning, and coaching.
For example, an L&D program that trains managers to give feedback might begin with on-demand online courses that employees can watch on how to give feedback and then follow the video-based learning activity with role-playing feedback sessions in a classroom. But it shouldn’t end there.
Managers could be assigned to practice their newly-learned feedback skills through exercises and live practice on the job. Coaches, mentors or your L&D team can help managers hone this new skill throughout the year by reminding managers to practice the new skill with their direct reports. The L&D team can also continuously share curated videos, articles, and other tips to help keep this issue top of mind and remind learners to apply their newly-learned skill.

2. Repetitive learning reinforces habit formation

Just like you learn how to play tennis or the piano, the only way you can master a new skill is through repetitive practice. Neuroscience research has now demonstrated that each time a person practices a new skill or habit, neurons fire up until neural pathways become ingrained in the brain and the habit becomes second nature. An effective L&D behavior change program will need to incorporate a blended learning model–on-demand learning, practice exercises, role-playing sessions, assigned homework, and/or coaching.
Udemy for Business instructor Lawrence Miller offers a blended learning model for his online course Leadership Skills: Leading Teams to High Performance which combines consistent online instruction, prescribed practice, and coaching. His course includes routine exercises for employees to put their lessons to work with their team or practice with their coach. The last step ensures that new leadership skills become second nature and that behavior actually changes. See Blended Learning: A Proven Model to Change Behavior at Work.

3. A nudging architecture can remind learners to change

While repetitive exercises can help turn a new skill into habit, L&D will have to also create the right supportive environment to continuously remind employees to stick with a new habit.
In his book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard Thaler–a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago–outlines the need for a “choice architecture” that nudges and reminds people to change their behavior. For example, recycling signs near trash cans remind people to do the right thing when it comes to the environment.
David Perring of the Fosway Group discusses how L&D can apply this nudge theory in the workplace. Perring recommends L&D should create an ecosystem of reminders to help nudge employees in the right direction post-training. The nudges or reminders could be manager observation checklists, funny videos, or posters around the office. For example, a manager feedback training could be followed by constant nudges and reminders in the form of witty videos on internal communication channels, a feedback contest with raffle prizes, or a reminder to use a newly learned feedback method as part of performance review instructions.

Read more on behavior change in action

These are just 3 elements of our L&D behavior change framework, for the additional 2 elements of our framework and to see how Lyft and Udemy designed unconscious bias training programs to change employee behavior, check out our latest toolkit: 5 Ways to Change Behavior at Work: The L&D Behavior Change Toolkit.

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