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January 31, 2007

Out of Context

By Hap Cooper

Why is effective training so rare?  Perhaps a more useful way to ask the question is, "Why is lasting behavioral change so difficult?"  I think one reason is because we have some pretty powerful forces working against us.  I know dozens of smart people who, despite succeeding in virtually everything they've ever tried, can't seem to change a single self-limiting habit.  It defies logic.

The enemy of change that I'd like to focus on today is "context," meaning the situation and surroundings we find ourselves in much of the time.  We are typically taken out of our work environment and taught a new skill--which we perform admirably--and are then plunked back down in our old context and expected to continue performing the new behavior. 

When we try anything new, we aren't typically too smoothe for the first few attempts.  So here we are, back on the firing line expected to perform a new skill that is both uncomfortable and often ineffective.  And we're expected to do it again and again until we have it mastered and it takes us to a higher level of effectiveness--generally without any reinforcement.  Context won't let that happen.

Most of us aren't aware of how powerful our surroundings and situation are in driving our behavior.  How do you behave around your parents, spouse, children, clergy, old roommates, solicitors, etc.? You are a number of different people--right?  We have internalized how we are expected to behave in each situation.  It works the same way with people in the workplace.  Even though you were just trained to behave differently around your subordinates or clients, when they walk in the door, you and the other person are compelled to do the same dance that you've always done.

I dug into this and found that the reach of context extends to the pysiological as well.  For example, you get drunker in an unfamiliar bar than you would in a bar that you know well on the same amount of alcohol.  How can that be?  Apparently, when your body "knows" it's about to get hit with alcohol, it braces itself and prepares a biochemical response that mutes the impact.  I read a facinating account of how a well-known basketball player died of a drug overdose that wasn't an OVER-dose at all.  Celebrating being drafted into the NBA, this player was offered a controlled substance at a time and in a place that were unfamiliar.  Even though the amount of the drug was consistent with what this athlete had experienced in the past, his body was not prepared--and he died.

If context has the power to kill us outright, it can certainly kill our efforts to change behavior.  So, what do we do?  I think the first step is awareness.  If we think about the obstacle, it's easier to brainstorm a list of solutions.  These ideas can be as extreme as changing people's offices after a training initiative to alter the context.  Or more practically, to provide contextual reminders that are taken back to the workplace, such as posters, mouse pads, templates, a wallet card or a field guide.  It would also seem very important to reinforce the desired behaviors in the real-world context.  Perhaps managers can provide skill drills or role-play at each participant's desk in the period following the training session.  It would also seem prudent to simulate the real-world environment as realistically as possible in the training event itself.

However you look at it, I believe that within the 30-90 days after a training event, the behaviors discussed are assimilated or lost.  So that's the playing field.  What have you done--or seen done--to overcome the power of context and make behavior stick back in the workplace?

Hap Cooper is a prolific speaker and writer focused principally on the areas of change management and sales effectiveness. He is the president and co-founder of Prospect Street Consulting, a research and training firm with offices in Westport, Conn., and Baltimore.


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