No Quick Learning Fix For Bad Habits

A while back I spoke with a distinguished physician leader. He wanted to change the behavior of key hospital staff who habitually engaged in unprofessional and perhaps even abusive conduct. ‘Why don’t we put them through an eLearning?” he asked. “By letting them do this on their own schedules, we’ll be able to roll this out quickly.” “Because it won’t work,” I said; and fortunately, he gave me a chance to explain.describe the image

We can deliver content multiple ways: on-line courses, webinars, virtual instructional learning, self-study, and in the classroom.   However, with this explosion of choices, leaders often focus on what’s expedient and has a lower upfront money and time investment, as opposed to what method will most effectively address challenging learning “problems.” For critical conduct rules, that’s a prescription for wasting time and money while maintaining the status quo.

If our purpose is to let others know about a standard policy or process, it’s easy to communicate information accurately and reach a disbursed audience almost immediately. ELearning, webcasts, multiple classes, and even emails, to a degree, can provide key points that achieve that result.

That’s essentially the role that traffic signs play in alerting drivers to put money in parking meters or to obey speeding laws. When they don’t follow instructions, we fine violators, revoke their licenses, or impose other penalties. That’s how many compliance training programs work. We give participants the standards, document receipt, and call it a day. Then, if key rules are breached, offenders “pay the price.” We blame the lapse on errant participants. This process may limit organizational fines and sanctions

But in situations where behaviors cause harm to the public or a workforce, that type of learning just isn’t good enough. A reprimand or discharge can’t undo the grave harm that co-workers or members of the public may suffer as a result of unchecked toxic or dangerous behaviors.  Such penalties will always be too little, too late. Instead, effectively eliminating the behaviors altogether so that they never occur in the first place should be the learning goal. But that’s not easy or quick.

In most cases, annual one-way messages and periodic email reminders won’t stop habitual actions. And that’s what aberrant behaviors are: bad habits. Getting people to pay attention to behavioral rules they routinely violate is like trying to get life-long smokers to quit. Even though they know it’s harmful and can probably recite the well-proven health reasons to stop, it’s still hard to change.

In our workplaces, key standards need to be repeated not just via annual communications, but by what the organization’s leaders at all levels say and do routinely on the job and when faced with real, as opposed to, hypothetical situations.

And leaders must be prepared to demonstrate personal commitment to their standards, which can involve, at times, removing offenders from their workplaces even though these offenders may have, as they usually do, saving professional graces.

That’s what I explained to my colleague. He made a decision to figure out what needs to be done in terms of organizational commitment and ongoing reinforcement to affect long-term behavioral change. His organization, other colleagues, and the public will all benefit from his choice.

  • David Fuller says:

    Steve, great article. You have gotten better with age.
    I am proud to have been a student of yours in the late 70s and early 80s

  • Ross Tartell says:

    Excellent article – changing beliefs and building higher order understanding goes a more interactive set of methodologies that go beyond the ability to recognize and regurgitate.

  • Aileen says:

    Great points Steve- given most policies are available “on-line” anyway, why should someone violating those policies treat passive e-learning any differently than the policies s/he ignores?

  • Laura says:

    Good article overall – as most on this blog are. Just not sure smoking was the right analogy there – sticking with speeding would have been better since the analogy was for when we do wrong even when we know it is wrong – not for when we do wrong because we have a physical addiction to it.

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