Making it stick: the fallacy of employee development

9 November 2019  |  Rich M

A big mystery lies at the heart of human nature. Why is it that people intellectually know what they should do – more exercise, not answer work emails in bed, make more time to coach their team – but don’t do it?

The psychology of learning is at the core of how we disrupt old habits and improve ourselves. Yet, until development programmes shift their focus away from being ‘content-led’ and ‘intense’, results will remain lacklustre. In theory, adjusting our behaviour and acquiring new skills is simple. But simple doesn’t mean easy. Duke University estimate that 45% of our waking behaviour is habitual. Indeed, behind these habits are good intentions. But breaking old habits takes more than just good intentions.

How to hack intentions

People don’t really learn when you tell them something. They learn when they do something and reflect on it. New neural pathways are created during the reflection period. Pro sports teams do post-game analysis: the military conduct after-action reviews: actors watch their rushes. Even holidays provide busy people the space to reflect and arrive at some suggestions for change.

Thoughtful reflection allows you to extract what’s useful before it drifts away. Or as psychologist Henry Roediger says “What’s essential is to interrupt the process of forgetting”. The key to hacking good intentions lies in practical experiences, and honest post-mortem. Reflection is where learning happens.

Classroom revolt

Classroom-type lectures are usually strong at intellectual stimulation, but weak at achieving behaviour change. McKinsey confirms that even “after very basic training sessions, adults typically retain just 10% of what they hear in classroom lectures, versus nearly two-thirds when they learn by doing”. Many development programmes become ‘content-driven’. This is a mistake. The answer is not about overloading executives with more and more content: they’re already drowning in the stuff (my blog included).

Content is a soft target for people to focus on – “what are you gonna teach them?” This misses the point. Professionals know what they should be doing, the issue isn’t lack of content – it all exists on the internet. The focus area should be twofold: firstly, what is the psychological root cause behind lack of change? And secondly, building practical skills that ballast and support that change.

Drinking from the fire hydrant

Lots of employee development is unintentionally designed to be intense: a day’s coaching on Delegation, for example. But intensity is an enemy disguised as a friend. Many modern-day development sessions resemble an ‘intensity’ model – fixed content, high energy, easy to organise, budget friendly and scalable. Think of that 2-day off-site that was great at the time, full of good intentions yet everyone left and carried on doing what they always have. An American client remarked to me recently “we need to stop trying to drink from the fire hydrant, it’s not working”

As Simon Sinek also noted in his recent talk “you can’t get in shape by going to the gym for 9 hours”. But if you divide up your efforts into smaller, manageable chunks, doing less but more regularly, the reward is consistency. Development programmes that resemble the intensity model have had their day: a less intense, more sustainable system is required. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am doesn’t cut it.

At the core of this is a desire for people to be able to change a lifetime habit in 6 hours. It’s unrealistic. And HR departments and professionals should not fall for the siren’s call of easy-fixes. Quitting smoking, eating healthily, meditating – they are all longer projects.

Making it stick

Humans want to be seen to be acting in consistent ways and making good on their commitments. At the end of any development, people share their learning and what their good intentions are. This verbal commitment has diminished results unless they know they will be held accountable.

Organisations have a responsibility to create conditions where people can sustain their commitments. This means addressing appropriate issues. Then, letting people loose back into the organisation to experiment. What is key, is getting peers together regularly for short periods to check-in on commitments – multiple touches are required. If people know their peers are watching, it encourages persistence and effort. Each person makes their own case for change: they own it. After all, people don’t sabotage their own ideas.

Pulling executives back together and sharing their war stories creates a forum to share their experiences and transfer the learning


People are being asked to do more with less and it’s turning corporate citizens into busy fools. To paraphrase Tim Ferris, being busy is a form of laziness: automatic behaviour, lazy habits and indiscriminate action. To change how we create learning experiences, you must start by stopping. Only then can we create the space to learn through simple content, practical experiences, reflection and regular peer accountability.