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Closing the knowing/doing gap: how to use neuroscience to apply learning on the job

The old saying goes, ‘you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’. While learners might be attending behavioural change programmes, you’ll never get them to apply what they’ve learned unless you can re-programme their thinking. 

1st Oct 2019
Partner Head Heart + Brain
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Last year we were asked to design and deliver a leadership programme for a large global organisation. The programme had been running for a number of years with a different partner and the client told us that participants gave really good feedback on the event, but no actual change in behaviour had occurred.

Our role was to help the organisation bridge the ‘knowing/doing’ gap and thus get some benefit from the money they were spending.

It seems to me this gap is very common in all types of learning. When asked, people tell us they apply about 1% of the content of a behavioural change learning event, like a leadership programme.

That’s an awful lot of money being spent for not much change.  

Neuroscience tells us a lot about how the brain changes behaviour and applying these insights can close the gap between knowing and behaving differently as a result of learning something new.

Both psychological and neuroscientific research shows that the key to behavioural change is to create ownership of learning content.

What‘s in it for me?

This is the first question running through the brain of anyone asked to change their behaviour or learn something new, whether it’s informal, on-the-job learning or a formal programme or workshop.

Essentially, you’re asking the learner to do two things: one is to realign their group identity, and the other is to change their work habits. Both of these can feel quite threatening unless handled carefully.

Group identity

Neuroscience has demonstrated that humans are essentially social beings and one of the first things we do is categorise people into in-group (people similar to us) and out-group (people who are different).

Learning interventions and especially high-profile programmes automatically create new in-groups in the form of programme alumni.

If people think that by taking part in the programme they're separating themselves from a valued in-group they'll be reluctant to participate. On the other hand, they’ll feel good about the prospect of a programme with high status colleagues, where places are restricted, or they get access to powerful people.

The more thought learners have to put into applying the learning and the more ways there are of applying it - the more likely it is to be used.

Evidence shows that the boundaries of people's in-groups can change if you present evidence that challenges their preconceptions. This could happen if they get an awareness of the benefits of a valuable new network, for example.

These in-groups can also provide a powerful means of nudging people to apply their learning. If the majority of the in-group are changing, people are more likely to make the effort to adopt new behaviour and stick with it.

This adherence to the (new) norms of the group enhances feelings of inclusion and social acceptance and helps provide the motivation to embed the new behaviour.

Encouraging time travel

Both psychological and neuroscientific research shows that the key to behavioural change is to create ownership of learning content. This ownership occurs when participants have a ‘aha moment’ rather than being told. They can then put the learning into a context that is relevant to them and apply it in their own way.

The more thought learners have to put into applying the learning and the more ways there are of applying it - the more likely it is to be used. For example, asking learners to elaborate on ideas engages the hippocampus, which is at the heart of memory creation.

Asking learners to see themselves using a new tool with their team or, better still, getting them to teach the team how to use it all aids learning transfer.

Amplify the ‘why’

It’s worth getting people to think about why they want to apply the new behaviour and not just how they will. There’s good evidence that the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ are processed by different parts of the brain.

Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), UCLA researchers have found that when people perform any given action there’s activity in pre-motor areas associated with the execution of actions in higher-order visual areas.

That’s a very technical way of saying that visualising your actions is important.

When the prefrontal cortex, which is largely responsible for intentional actions and goal-directed behaviour, gets tired then the habit system kicks in.

There’s more: the researchers say that identifying why actions are performed is done by areas of the brain associated with representing and reasoning about mental states, the medial prefrontal cortex.  

We know this region is also responsible for ‘time travelling’, helping people to see themselves in the future.  

Getting people to visualise themselves achieving the new behaviour, as well as planning how they will feel when they do it, all contributes to closing the knowing/doing gap.

New behavioural habits

Most of what we know about habit formation is thanks to research done on rats.

Take one very simple experiment: rats press a lever in return for a reward. Once they continue to press the lever even when there is no reward, they have formed a habit. It’s not clear at what point an action becomes a habit, however.

You can, no doubt, identify habits of your own that seem to have been formed very quickly, and others that have been much harder to instill. This change from goal-directed action to habit happens in different brain systems, and more recent research suggests the process requires more than repetition.

Think about this in an example from a training programme: the learner has written goals that include how she will contribute more forcefully at the management meeting.

This takes effort, however, and part of the brain's design is to be energy efficient, which means it’s inclined to push energy-hungry activities like conscious action (the goal) towards more energy-efficient parts of the brain, where habits reside (the old behaviour at management meetings).

The habit system is slower to gear up, but once it's running it can be hard to redirect. So when the prefrontal cortex, which is largely responsible for intentional actions and goal-directed behaviour, gets tired then the habit system kicks in.

Just having a goal or good intention about contributing at the meeting isn’t going to be enough.

Habit versus intention

It’s important to help learners have more than goals. The habit model includes planning when (the cue) how (the routine) and the reward.

It also helps to provide reinforcement of the motivation either through social rewards like recognition from an in-group or someone important to the learner, or social pressure like negative social consequences for failing to adopt the behaviour.

The positive works better in the long term and there is some evidence that adopting one new habit can trigger related positive behavior.

Practical implications

Here is a quick summary of the main points to apply to your learning strategy.

  1. Make explicit reference to why it’s important to learn new skills, change behaviour or think differently.
  2. Ensure learners have personalised goals, either through mechanisms like a discussion with their boss, using 360 feedback, self-assessment tools or pre-event reflection questions that help participants think about the relevance of the learning to their success. This helps to answer the question ‘what’s in it for me?” It also reduces uncertainty.
  3. Help learners build a picture of them doing the new behaviour and the success it brings.
  4. Create plans based on the habit model.
  5. Nudge learners to keep going until habits are formed. Using social rewards.

Doing this may sound arduous but it’s a lot cheaper than throwing away 99% of your training budget because learners know what they should do but don’t change their behaviour.

Interested in this topic? Read Transferring learning is obvious - except it's not.

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