We’ve all seen it before: We send one of our employees to an offsite training event and they return all fired up with new ideas they’re chomping at the bit to implement. The first week performance is up, and you and the employee are stoked, thinking you’ve found the secret to success. Then, a few weeks pass and the excitement begins to fade. Old habits begin snuffing out the newly learned behaviors; before you know it, they are back to doing things the old way, as if they had never gone to training in the first place. Why does this regression to old behaviors happen and how can we avoid it to sustain performance?
It all has to do with our brain’s efficient design and ability to conserve mental resources by putting as many behaviors as possible on “autopilot” through the creation of habits. One resource indicates that up to 40 percent of our daily activities are executed not by intentional thought on our part, but by habits our brain has created. Think about it: We get up, drink our morning coffee, shower, dress, tie our shoes, and, I dare say, even drive to work on habit while using our mind to plan and think about the day ahead.
While habits are often to our benefit, they also have a unique quality: Once created, they can’t be erased. With focused effort we can create new habits, but the old ones will always be there, competing and waiting to be activated by our brain, and this is why we have a tendency to fall back into our old ways. For example, have you ever started a new diet or exercise routine, then have an off day and decide to “cheat” or skip the work out? Next thing you know, that simple little cheat activated your old habit and off the health wagon you fell! So how can we stay the course, and more specifically, help our employees to stay the course?
Creating new habits is all about awareness and focus. You have to be aware of what triggers those old habits and have a plan in place for how you’ll react when you encounter those triggers. Focus during those moments will help you to choose the planned behaviors and strengthen the new habit. The more we continue to choose the new behaviors, the stronger the new habit will become and the easier it will be for it to win over old habits.
For our employees, awareness and focus can be achieved through coaching and in-house training. A successful coaching plan would take advantage of both one-to-one sessions and ride-a-longs; during which time you’ll be able to provide real-time feedback, help your employees gain awareness of their triggers, and provide support as they face challenges and the pressure to fall back into old habits becomes high. A good training plan should occur weekly to help employees stay focused on key success behaviors by providing reinforcing messages and time to refine habits through skill practice.