Resolving to change behaviour

Senior Consultant
Learnworks Ltd
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How’s your New Year’s resolution going? 

If you decided to shed a few pounds in 2016, you won’t be alone. But times they are a-changin’ for the weight loss industry. I heard on the radio the other day from the Weightwatchers Director of Public Health (I know! Who knew?) who was talking about the rise in fitness apps and a re-focusing of Weightwatchers away from losing weight and towards health and wellbeing.  

She was saying that the new Weightwatchers app communicates and takes data from other fitness apps (fitbit and so on). The app itself can be used in conjunction with online community discussions, tips and hints from experts and – of course – the weekly meetings where you can be weighed and given further dietary advice alongside others going on the same journey.

Sound familiar?  

In L&D many of us have been advocating joined up, multiple inputs for some time. We’ve been wrestling with the right mix of media and events and we integrate peer to peer learning both in person and mediated by technology. We have concentrated our efforts – with varying degrees of success - in maintaining motivation once change becomes tricky and returning to the old ways beckons like a snuggly duvet on a winter’s morning.

And yet we know that weight loss programmes are marked by quite staggering levels of failure. Despite the investment in books, low calorie foods, programmes, apps and classes more than 90% of dieters put back the weight they lose in 1 – 5 years. Long term behaviour change is tricky.

Let’s not forget that these are people who are willingly undertaking a programme to improve their health, get fitter and lose weight. They are volunteers, yet still long-term success is elusive.

Now let’s compare that with the work we do in L&D. We take groups of people with variable willingness and motivation – often people selected by someone else to do something they never knew they needed to do in order to achieve a goal of which they may well be unaware. They are often quite comfortable doing things the way they have been and, unsurprisingly, quite resistant to change. 

We confront their indifference with apps, online support, group sessions and one to one coaching – just like the slimming programmes advertised on TV. We achieve some breakthroughs. Some behaviour changes and maybe – in certain circumstances - the behaviours change for ever.  

But we should also take a long look at our programmes and our multifaceted interventions and recognise that, like those struggling to control their weight, success may well be elusive. The fact that we achieve some movement ought to be a cause for celebration. But the popping of champagne corks would sound pretty hollow if we only achieved the same levels of success as the multi-billion pound dieting industry.

But we do have one weapon in our armoury which is absent from those peddling weight loss solutions. Society is obsessed with slender beauty. The lithe and lovely are definitely favoured, yet junk food is ubiquitous, cakes are ‘naughty but nice’ and sugar is everywhere – even in things which aren’t sweet. Despite the visions of a ‘new you’ and society’s disapproval of the obese and the overweight, there is a counter current which is sometimes too strong to resist. It is one which undermines an individual’s good intentions, however sincere the resolution.

But inside organisations it may be easier to remove the temptations. We will need to work on culture. The language, mores and behaviours we seek to implement will need to be in tune with the environment in which we want to see the change implemented. We will need to make real efforts in ensuring that the ground in which we are planting our seeds of behaviour change can support the new ways of working we envisage.

In the world of weight loss, mixed messages and the ease with which one can slip back into an unhealthy diet, defeat even the most well thought out campaign to support those wanting to change their life, their health and their shape. In organisations we need to eliminate the mixed messages before we can hope to help those we work with change behaviour over the long term.

So if your professional resolutions for 2016 are beginning to fade and falter, think about your organisational culture. What can you do to build an environment which encourages the behaviours your organisation thinks are important? How can you remove the nasty temptations to backslide into the old ways of doing things?

Oh, and Happy New Year.

 

Robin Hoyle is a writer and consultant working with organisations large and small to implement change through people development.  He is the author of two books published by Kogan Page: Informal Learning in Organizations: how to create a continuous learning culture and Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement.

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17th Feb 2016 13:08

Hi Robin,
I found this an interesting article - combines two of my soapboxes: learning for behavioural change and the damage being done by the food and diet industries! I guess you stand back from saying that those industries create addictive foods (sugar!) that mean change in eating habits is almost impossible until the addiction is broken, so I'll say it for you.
More important is your question about how to create organisational environments that promote continuous, self managed learning and sustainable behavioural change. I think one of the problems is that many professionals struggle to understand learning, equating it to training. Learning can be a messy business and it demands many things that organisations fail to value. Real learning needs:

Reflection (oh oh, time-consuming, doesn't appear to be immediately productive)
Experimentation (oh oh, failure is expensive)
Repetition (oh oh, re-work? Avoid at all costs!)
Collaboration (oh, oh, share what we've invested in? You've got to be joking!)
Creativity (oh oh, mad ideas, it'll never work, not how we do things here...)
Relevance and personal meaning (oh, oh...you don't need to know that, outside your remit)
etc. etc.
I suggest that 21st Century organisations need to create a culture of 'unlearning' with a strong focus on challenging assumptions and developing the skills to deal with uncertainty and complexity. What do you think?

Ann

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