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It seems to be very hard for people to get away from the idea that if we just put individuals in a room and train them on ‘something’, the job of achieving that ‘something’ will be accomplished. And if not, we will just train them again.

This naivety about behavioural and cultural change is widespread in business and society and cuts across a diverse range of topics. It’s about time we learn how successful approaches have managed to mobilize large numbers of people.

We have traditionally seen it in the area of Health and Safety, where training is a requisite, and who could disagree with that? But training is a weak tool for behavioural change compared to copying and imitating others around you. Training to wear a helmet, telling people that it is a requisite, and people wearing it are three occasionally connected things. But if training is your essential tool, and you have a Full Division for it, then the old saying that ‘when the only thing you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’ applies well.

In this model of hammers and nails, when there is a health and safety transgression, the ‘punishment’ may be… more training. ‘Sending people back to training’ is not just a feature of Health and Safety. In recent years it has included unethical bankers sent on courses on Ethics in apparently ethical business schools. It sometimes seems as if we were following a rule: if you misbehave, we will train you a hell of a lot.

“Training and communicating have gone from a measured and necessary intervention to a single, sufficient solution for many evils.”

We also see it more and more in the controversial area of ‘training on the unconscious bias’ to fight gender and race inequality. It’s not going to stop anytime soon until people realise that rational and even emotional training on a subject has little power in sustainable behavioural change. There is plenty of growing data on how that training may be useless, yet we keep doing it. Accepting that society’s ills are not solved in training rooms seems complicated.

“Gender and race inequality, for example, will not stop anytime soon until people realise that rational and even emotional training on a subject has little power in sustainable behavioural change.”

In the corporate world, top-down communication programmes aimed at ‘creating culture’ continue to be entirely present even when the very same people who have authority in dictating and constructing them will tell you in private that they don’t expect a massive impact. It’s, again and again, the repeat of the old tale.

Two people are talking to each other in a garden. One seems to be looking for something on the ground. The other comes along and says, ‘What are you doing?’. The first response was, ‘I’m looking for my keys’. ‘oh, sorry to hear that. Where did you lose your keys?’. The man says, ‘Over there’, pointing to the other side of the garden. The other man says, ‘Hold on, if you lost the keys over there, why are you looking at the ground here?’. The other responds, ‘Because there is more light here’.

There is certainly more light in training and communicating, but the keys are usually lost in the corridors, in the day-to-day interactions with people and in the unwritten rules of the informal organization. There is less light (but you will find your keys) in a bottom-up behavioural change approach. The one that is not conceived as a communication programme but as a grassroots movement. If there is any hope in addressing the ‘S’ in ESG (the Environmental, Social and Governance agenda), it’s not in top-down communication and training programmes to tackle ‘culture’ but in an ‘inversion of the arrow’, from top to bottom to the opposite.

“There is more “light” in training and communication campaigns, but you will find your keys in a bottom-up behavioural change approach.”

An extra and obvious problem with training in large organizations is that you soon start running out of bodies. You train (and communicate to) leaders, the top layer and a few layers down, and then the system closes its eyes, hoping that the miracle of scale will take place. This mental model suggests that large scale is small scale repeated several times, which is the equivalent of thinking that if you just put large piles of bricks together, you’ll get a cathedral.

Cultural change is on all tables today, corporate, society, education… It’s about time we learn how successful approaches have managed to mobilize large numbers of people. No revolution has started in a classroom

Learn more about our thinking here.

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