Conditions that trigger behaviour change

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Learning Transfer’s ultimate outcome is behaviour change, so we must understand the conditions that trigger a behaviour to start.

Generating new behaviours

BJ Fogg is a behavioural psychologist, author, and founder and director of the Stanford Behaviour Design Lab. He has developed the concept of ‘Behaviour Design’, which comprises a set of models for understanding how human behaviour works, as well as a set of methods to help influence it.

According to Fogg, three specific elements must converge at the same moment for a specific behaviour to occur. Given that learning transfer is only successful when the learner starts behaving in the desired new ways, Fogg’s work is critical to understanding how to generate these new behaviours. The Fogg Behavioural Model [*1] states that B=MAP. That is, a specific behaviour will occur if at the same moment there is sufficient motivation, sufficient ability and sufficient prompt. If the behaviour does not occur, at least one of these three elements is missing or below the threshold required.

The prompt is, in effect, a call to action to do a specific behaviour. The prompt must be ‘loud’ enough for the target person to perceive it and be consciously aware of it. Once aware of a prompt, the target immediately, and largely unconsciously, assesses their ability to carry out the requested behaviour: how difficult would this be, how long will it take, who can help me, and so on. They base this on their perception of the difficulty of the requested behaviour, and their ability, as they see it, to achieve that behaviour.

They balance this against their motivation to respond to the call to action. If, in that moment, their motivation is high enough for them to attempt the behaviour, given their assessment of its difficulty, they will make a start. The prompt will succeed, and the behaviour will occur. If their motivation is not high enough, then the prompt will fail.

Graph of the Fogg Behavior Model

This diagram was included in my book ‘Learning Transfer at Work: How to Ensure Training >> Performance’ [*2] with permission from BJ Fogg and is included here with this short extract from the book.

Notice that the bottom axis of the graph is all about perception rather than reality. It is the person presented with a prompt who decides whether the requested behaviour is hard or easy, regardless of what someone else might think. This is why the same prompt will work for one person and not necessarily for another.

Deployment of learning after a training course requires the trainees to do something that is different from what they were doing before the training course. That is, a new behaviour is required, and this means it needs to be triggered. The triggering prompt could be very explicit and direct, such as an email request to do a task or practise a skill. It could also be implicit and indirect, such as the expectation that, if a set of circumstances arises, the trainee should use something they have learned in a training course. And anything in between.

If the trigger is direct, then we have control over the form and timing of the prompt. We can design the prompt carefully to make sure that it is seen or heard. Email? Text? An item on a checklist? How? We can also design the prompt to include information that could increase the motivation of the target person by making sure they have a big enough ‘Why should I do this?’

The timing of the prompt is also important. Can we set the prompt to occur for a certain task when the trainee is more likely to be in a sufficient state of motivation for the task? There is likely to be a ‘honeymoon’ period after a training course, when the memory of the ideas and excitement about the possibilities are still fresh in the trainee’s mind. How long this honeymoon period will last is typically dependent on the attitude and support they get from their manager and peers when they are back at their desk. Also consider the time of the day and the day of the week they will receive the prompt. When are the trainees most likely to be able to accept and respond to a prompt positively?

However, if the prompt is implicit in a set of circumstances, we must ensure that those circumstances will be recognised by the trainee within their own context, and they will be easily able to spot that scenario as it unfolds. If the scenario is not always obvious, an alternative is to set up prompts for the behaviour of testing for the scenario until that becomes habitual. Look at the prompts you are relying on. Where are they on the continuum from implicit to explicit? How can you improve each prompt?

Three steps to behaviour change

In addition to prompt design, we can also design the requested behaviour or task so that it appears small and easy to do. All other things being equal, the smaller the task appears, the more likely it is that the prompt will succeed. This suggests that many small tasks are more likely to succeed than a few big ones, even if the cumulative effect is the same.

On his website [*3], Fogg outlines his three steps for changing behaviour:

  1. Get specific
  2. Make it easy
  3. Trigger the behaviour

Within each of these steps he includes ideas and tools to accomplish the steps, which are not as simplistic as they might seem at first glance. He also offers the following as some common approaches to behaviour change that don’t work well (and I confess I have used some of these in the past):

  1. Present information and hope it leads to attitude change and then behaviour change
  2. Give people a big goal and then focus on increasing motivation or sustaining willpower
  3. Move people through psychological stages until they are ready to change
  4. Assume all behaviours are the result of choices
  5. Make persuasion techniques, such as scarcity or reciprocity, the starting point for your solution.

I would recommend that you watch Fogg’s TEDx talk on YouTube Forget big change, start with a tiny habit (Dec 2012) and visit his websites and for more detailed information on how to work with the three elements, MAP, to ensure a behaviour occurs.

The idea of a prompt or trigger also brings us into the world of behavioural economics and nudge theory [*4]. When you offer someone a prompt, you are offering them a choice. How you design that choice has a big bearing on which choice someone will take, to do it, or not to do it. This is called choice architecture and may be the subject of a future blog 🙂

Introducing learning tasks in the stretch zone

Another model that comes into play here is the Comfort, Stretch, Panic model. It is often attributed to Karl Rohnke but is probably founded on the Yerkes-Dodson law, which dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases. The Comfort, Stretch, Panic model is often represented as three concentric circles with the inner circle being the comfort zone, the middle circle being the stretch zone, and the outer circle being the panic zone.

If you are asked to do an activity, which zone does it fall into given your perception of the activity? And how do you react to tasks in the different zones? Do you gravitate towards comfortable tasks because, well, they are comfortable? Do you gravitate towards stretch tasks because you are more likely to find excitement and learning there? How do you cope if you find you have to do a task that for you is in the panic zone?

It’s also worth considering how these zones grow and shrink over time as we gain experience and our perception of our skills changes. If we spend almost all our time in the comfort zone, it is likely the zone will shrink as we become less confident in tackling anything that is in any way new or different. If we spend time in the stretch zone where we find novelty, exploration, and adventure, it will probably expand the boundaries of both the comfort zone and the stretch zone. It is not really a comfortable place, but it is stimulating as we challenge ourselves to perform better and do more. If we spend too much time in the panic zone, we may get burned to the point that we retreat to the comfort zone to lick our wounds.

The idea of introducing learning tasks in the stretch zone, and thereby introducing some level of anxiety, is different to other learning theories, which posit that a fully supportive and non-anxious environment is more conducive to learning. Our reaction to these zones is idiosyncratic. Do we tend to yearn for adventure and learning, or do we prefer to stick to what we know so that we don’t fail?

In part, this is based on our reaction to what we think might change, and how that change will affect us. Anxiety, after all, is the fear we have when we imagine a future event not turning out as well as we hope, causing us to lose something we value. Think of a change you were afraid of, or just worried about. Was it really the change that was generating the fear? Or was it your thinking about the possible losses you might suffer because of the change?

Notice that the fear is due to anticipating loss. Fear is about imagining a future event turning out badly so that, as a result, we suffer loss. So that begs the question, why would we imagine something in the future going wrong? The answer seems to be related to the locus of control. If we feel that we are fully in control of the situation, and the change, then we can ‘make’ it go well, and avoid any loss. We have no fear when we believe that we are fully in control. As the locus of control moves outside us, or outside people we trust, then we fear in proportion to the probability and magnitude of the potential loss. And of course, everyone is different in terms of how much they react to the potential for loss. Some are more laid back by nature, and some are more anxious.

This gives us more insight into how we can architect the choice we give people when we give them a prompt to act. How can we set up the call to action such that they feel in control of what is about to happen should they follow the prompt?

Dr Robert Maurer in his book One Small Step Can Change your Life: The Kaizen Way (May 2014) [*5] posits that the human brain co-operates with low-key change. Maurer maintains that for most people, change is frightening and therefore the key to change is to take small steps in a non-threatening way or environment so that fear is circumnavigated. The fear itself is generated by the amygdala, which creates a chemical storm that shuts down the cortex of the brain, together with rational and creative thinking and anything else that could interfere with the physical ability to run or fight. The problem is this; rational and creative thinking are just what you need to do the new and different tasks involved with change. With small goals, we are in control; the fear is bypassed; the amygdala sleeps, and change is possible.

One of the things that moves the locus of control outside us, waking up the amygdala, is if we are uncertain about our ability to cope with the change. Do we have the knowledge and skills to handle the change and stay ‘in control’? If not, can we get the right kind of support on demand to enable us to cope with the change? If we don’t have the abilities needed to manage/control the change, can we learn them fast enough?

Our perception of our abilities, which includes whether we believe we are capable of improving those abilities when needed, has a massive effect on how we cope with the idea of change, of doing something new, and the fear of possible loss. Our mindset matters when we are presented with a call to perform a new behaviour or are confronted with a goal that pushes us into our stretch zone or beyond.

In summary…

Successful learning transfer only happens when people start doing what they do at work in a new way based on what they learned during a training course or elearning. We have to ask them to do things differently, so we need to use clever choice architecture when we ask for what we want from them.

Further reading and info

How to design a learning workflow for maximum learning transfer in the workplace

Learning transfer

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*4 from-scratch-149-how-nudge-theory-can-help-learning-and-development
*5 One_Small_Step_Can_Change_Your_Life