I recently received a flyer promoting a 2 day training program on Consulting Skills.  Now I have nothing against training programs and I believe that when done well they do deliver some value.

This program seemed jam packed with tools and techniques for example if you signed up for this 2 day program you received:-

  • The 34 essentials you need to begin a successful initiative
  • The 9 important steps to ensure you add value
  • The knowledge of when to use Expert and Collaborative modes
  • The 24 ways to run better initial meetings
  • The 4 powerful ways to boost your active listening
  • The 20 ways to increase your information gathering
  • The keys for building rapport and overcoming resistance
  • Over 150 action steps and 10 important ways to boost your effectiveness
  • A 7-step process to help you say no
  • The 23 ways to prepare persuasive presentations
  • The 6 ways to handle difficult people during presentations
  • The next steps to lock in client commitments
  • The 30 practical ways to reposition your team as business partners
  • The list goes on

As I read through the substantial list I could feel myself becoming a bit overwhelmed.  This program seems to provide you with a tool or technique to deal with every situation a Consultant may face.

I don’t believe that this training program developer had an expectation that you would be an expert in everything they cover in the two days.  They probably would like you to know that there is a tool or technique to use and where to find it.  But how many would develop the habits to start using them?

If the statistics are anything to go by, we tend to remember less than 10% of what we learn in a training program.  Why? Because our old habits rule.  What support can leaders give to support developing new habits?

I remember working with a senior manager at a previous company who was honoured to have been sent on a leadership program costing over $10,000 + flights/accommodation.  However 12 months later, he hadn’t worked on any of the actions he wanted to as a result of the training.  Worse still his manager had never had a conversation with him about the training program.

The opportunity for this manager to unlock and realise their potential was lost.

I believe that the majority of participants who attend training programs do so with the best of intentions of developing new skills and knowledge to make them better in their jobs.

I also believe that the majority of training providers develop their programs with the intention of providing new skills and knowledge so that participants improve and are better in their jobs.

Both parties come together with great intention but what is the real impact?

Usually very little.

Unfortunately there is a big gap between what the participant learns at the training course and what they actually do with it.  Our habits are so strong that we need to make the changes.  I see this being a great opportunity for a leader make a real impact and receive good return on their investment at the same time.

Here is why.

When we attend good quality training programs, we activate our prefrontal cortex which opens us up to discovering new perspectives, exploring new concepts and seeing new possibilities of what we can do with the new knowledge.

Next, our Neo Cortex is activated so we process the new information by analysing it and putting it into practice through various program activities such as role plays, group discussions, case studies etc.  These two parts of our brain are generally what we use when we attend training programs.

Our brains are filled with oxytocin which makes us feel happy, engaged, and trusting of others.  We enjoy this feeling.

But in order for the new skills and knowledge to really stick, we also need to engage our limbic brain.  We need to form new habits.

The limbic brain is where we store memories and habits.  It is also where our emotions are centred.  The limbic brain is one of our oldest brain regions and operates without consciousness.

The limbic brain works side by side with the primitive brain and together they remain vigilant for potential threat and harm.  It is our default system and has been very successful in keeping the human race surviving.

Going back to our scenario, the employee returns to work and the high levels of oxytocin experienced during the training have now disappeared.  The employee faces the reality of the work place and starts to feel uncertain or even anxious about whether the changes they want to make should actually happen.  This is our primitive brain in action.  It is checking for potential threats and risks.  Our preference for stability and certainty overwhelm our desire for something different and we so feel uncertain.  Most of us lose our motivation at this stage as it all looks too hard.

We may survive, we just won’t thrive.

Think about how you operate every day.  From your routine of getting out of bed and getting to work on time; where you sit in a meeting; and how you go about attending to your workload.  For most of us, these are things we do without thinking.  They are habits; safe predictable sets of behaviours which our primitive brain loves. We are surviving.

Around 95% of what we do in a day we do without really thinking about it.  We live our lives primarily by our habits and beliefs.

Our brain’s wiring supports these habits through strong networks of neuron activations.  The more we use the networks the stronger the connections become.  This is why habits are so difficult to change.

You cannot break habits you can only replace them.

Think about this

When you were a child you would have learnt the words to a song and you would have sung it a lot.  Many years later you are able to sing that song even though you haven’t done for so long.  By learning the words to the song and singing it repeatedly you create a strong network of neural activity in your brain – just like a habit.  All of us know the words of hundreds of songs, each replacing the former.  We never think about the song unless we are prompted to reactivate the network by hearing the tune or reliving a past memory in our mind.  Studies have found patients with Dementia can even remember songs yet cannot recognise family.

Just like you cannot forget a song, you cannot break a habit; they somehow remain intact in the electro-chemical systems of the brain.

Instead of breaking old/ineffective habits replace them.

This is easier said than done given our brain’s preference for stability and consistency.

People say it takes 21 days to develop a new habit or 3 months for people to really change.  What they are essentially saying is that it takes time and repetition to build a new neural network in your brain.

Leaders can have a significant role to play here in helping employees close the gap between intention and new habit formation through supporting their development of new brain networks.  The best asset a leader can possess is the ability to ask questions that prompt deep thinking and insight to make these connections.

Here are some guidelines that leaders can follow to increase the opportunity of forming new brain networks

Create the attachment

We commonly talk about what we want to do and how we will do it.  However not a lot of people know why they do what they do.  You will come to recognise this by their answers such as “because it’s easier or, “because it saves money”.  These answers have no connection to the emotions located in the limbic brain.

Unless we understand why we want to do it we will fail to connect with the limbic brain and therefore we will struggle to create a new habit.  The old habit has an emotional connection, even though you may not know what it is.  It will always the default habit if an emotional connection is not found for the new network.

Creating the attachment to our emotions is the first stage of developing lasting change.

Going back now to the employee who has just returned from the training course let’s just say that they want to implement the “7 step process to say “no””.

To help them discover why they want to do this, a good place to start would be to explore the employee’s reasons and why it is important for them to focus on this technique.

Use questions like

  • Why did this technique stand out most for you?
  • If you did this process, how do you see yourself in the future?
  • What do you believe stands in your way of achieving the change?
  • What will success look like?

Tiny steps

Often times when we set ourselves goals, we inadvertently set ourselves up for failure.  Remember that our brains prefer stability not change.  If the goal creates too much uncertainty our limbic brain it will trigger a threat/fear response causing us to resist.

The key is to use tiny challenges.

Instead of expecting our employee to implement a whole process, encourage the employee to break down their goal into tiny challenges and to tackle these one at a time.

For example in 2016 the Manager of the British Olympic cycling association created enormous success for his athletes by breaking each section of their cycling strategies into very small activities.  He then asked the coaches to look for a 1% improvement in each of the activities.  The result of that was the British cycling team won their first Olympic gold medals in many years at the London Olympics.

The key – do small activities and small improvements

Experiment and test

The real success of coaching is allowing the employee to experiment, improve, and repeat.  It is the classic sports coaching technique.  An athlete for example completes the task, and then sits down with the coach to discuss the results in detail and decide what would be an appropriate adjustment.  The athlete goes out and experiments again and repeats the process.   Tiny challenges tested and then improved.

Reflect  and repeat

This is the often neglected phase of helping employees create new neural networks for improvements to their behaviour/performance.  It is further compounded by the fact that we have become so busy in our lives that we feel we have little time to spend reflecting.

From a brain network strengthening perspective, reflection is a key part.  When we reflect we visualise in our minds ie we create a movie, of what happened.  We can visualise scenarios and analyse our efforts and impact.

Did you know that around 65% of our brain is used for visual processing?

Well before our ancestors had language they drew pictures and created dances to tell stories and communicate.  The strength of reflection comes from this very ability.  It helps us connect new learning with existing knowledge and to predict an outcome.

Leaders can encourage this brain activity by encouraging the employee to reflect on their experience each time they practice/experiment by answering three questions

  • What happened?
  • What worked?
  • What could be done differently next time?

Deliver on commitments

I haven’t met a person who hasn’t been disappointed by a promise being broken by someone.

Promises and commitments connect deeply with our need to trust and belong.  When promises are made, as recipients of the promise, we put in place an agreement that has no guarantee.  We have no control over the outcome and so we are left feeling vulnerable.  This is a very risky state for our brains as we are pretty much putting ourselves at risk for potential harm.  However our need to trust and to belong are very strong and so we are prepared to accept a promise/commitment because we believe that the rewards for doing so are worthwhile.

This is why we feel so disappointed when a promise is broken.  Our ability to trust impacts us at our core.

When coaching an employee remember that is already a risky exercise for them.  It is essential therefore to build trust by agreeing to and delivering on your commitments.  Again just a couple of simple questions is all that is needed

  • What will you commit to doing?
  • What I commit to do?

Send a quick email to confirm and then act.

The training program I used in this blog has so many tools and techniques an employee would struggle to implement them all.  When there are a number of actions or tools, an employee is better served by focussing on one at a time.  This may sound time consuming but if you repeated the process explained above over the course of a year your employee may have implemented up to twelve new skills / behaviours, and that is usually 12 more than they will have achieved on their own.

A goal broken into tiny challenges is far more palatable for the brain’s mechanisms leading to greater achievement.

Finally, you may read this and think this is all well and good but you don’t have time put all this effort in one employee.  I invite you to consider this

By having the right conversation and asking good questions, these conversations can be achieved in 15 minutes.

That’s just long enough to enjoy a cup of coffee with them.