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The True Cost of Behavioural Change

9th Aug 2011
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“Thought I should see what everyone has been raving about,” wrote the head of Talent Development in a major UK non-government body recently. She came away full of enthusiasm for in essence an intense experience—or as she called it “a bijou gathering - just six of us,” focused on individual behavioural change.

The need for companies to become more adept at both understanding and creating behavioural change is accelerating. For example, even in China the cost of labour is becoming as expensive, or more so, than the cost of capital.[1]

As many companies attempt to shift towards higher margin, high value work, this poses new management challenges. Those residing comfortably in the secure embrace of top down, command and control methods increasingly look irrelevant.

Managers who understand the importance of behavioural change—both its capabilities and limitations will be much sought after. Already we see a rising premium for finding those managers who know how to get the best from a highly skilled workforce.  No wonder we now have Talent Managers as a full time role in many companies.

It is a generally accepted fact of life that managerial jobs are becoming more complicated. Greater automation for example means managers who can handle an ever more sophisticated workforce. If you do not grasp the essentials of behavioural change you are likely to fail in your role.

The development of employees in the West has long been regarded as a critical part of an organisation’s success. Yet it remains a largely hit and miss affair. Much of the time companies treat the achievement of important behavioural shifts mechanistically.

For instance only seldom are such important changes embedded in the culture. Even when they are, this is generally the exception rather than the norm.

While plenty of handy theories exist about how to get people to perform at their best, we are mainly stuck with an outmoded approach showing itself in abysmally low levels of engagement. Numerous solutions have surfaced including self-managed teams, better communications, more individual autonomy, more inspiring leadership.

The search for a “behavioural remedy” continues. Yet as with so many puzzles the solution is often staring one in the face. What matters in achieving sustained behavioural change is sustained follow through.

Lack of follow through shows itself in a widespread lack of investment in re-enforcement of previous learning. It is one thing to commit to a development programme with a finite number of days, and quite another to open the door to more sustained support.

Researchers estimate the losses from learning can range from a dismal 50% of the investment to a shocking 80%. Distinctive and lasting behavioural change is therefore an imperative for any development programme.

What does this mean in practice? First the essential components of follow through need to form the basis of any serious development programme. For example Xerox Corporation carried out several studies on coaching. In the absence of follow-up coaching to their training classes, they concluded 87% of the skills change brought about by the program was lost.[2]

Secondly, some of the basic management practices must be in place for sustained follow through to work. These include goal setting, regular feedback, coaching, re-enforcement or follow up days, creation of learning communities, access to new and stimulating information and advice, and new engagement practices.

None of this is cheap. Indeed the cost is usually deftly excluded from most development programmes for fear the “additional” price will kill the planned investment stone dead. Yet behavioural change is seldom easy, nor cheap. But if you really you want people to perform differently it will normally take more than a quick fix.



[1] See for example: Robots Still Put Skills Pressure on Leadership, by Andrew Hill, Financial Times August 9th 2011.

[2] See for example: From suboptimal to Systematic.  A winning formula for behaviour change? By Krauthammer, 2009


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