Train to Ingrain: How to Make Learning Stick
Welcome to Extreme Excellence David Wright (Wright)
Thank you. I'm delighted to be here. I'm looking forward to our
conversation. We'll be focusing on employee engagement and the Train
to Ingrain® process. N. Elizabeth Fried (Fried)
So why is leadership or management training more critical today
than ever before?
Basically, people quit managers, not companies. While an employee
may initially join a company for its reputation, high salary, or great
benefits, it's ultimately the relationship with his or her manager that
keeps the employee there. So, to insure the retention of productive
employees, companies need to invest in training wisely. It's a far better
alternative than dealing with the staggering cost of turnover.
Let's talk specifically about how the employer/manager relationship
impacts the bottom line. If we review the research on employee
engagement conducted by Gallup and ISR, it reveals that operating
income, net income, earnings per share, and customer satisfaction are all
significantly improved when employees are engaged. Conversely, you'll
find that these same areas are negatively affected when there is a lack of
engagement. Engaged employees, for example, feel that their managers
know them, are concerned about their growth and development, and
really care about them. So, if we know that employee engagement
increases revenues and ultimately profitability, the key question is, "Who
is responsible for insuring employee engagement?" Unequivocally, it's
the company's leadership.
You know, some of the people reading this book might not be as
knowledgeable about employee engagement as others in the industry.
Would you just simply define "employee engagement" for us?
Sure. There are three types of employees. First, you have an engaged
employee. That's the person who works with passion and feels a deep
connection and commitment to his or her company. This commitment is
what drives innovation. They're the ones who create the momentum that
thrusts the organization forward. These are the people who are critical
to your organization's success to help carry out the vision, mission, and
Then you have employees who are not engaged. These people have
essentially checked out; they're often referred to as "dead men working"
or "empty suits." They go through their workday putting in their time,
but not their energy or passion.
Finally, we have a third group, and this is really the most destructive
group-an employer's nightmare. These people are actively disengaged
employees. They are unhappy at work, so they act out their
dissatisfaction. I call them "pot-stirrers." They're constantly creating
problems, and every day they want to subvert their engaged co-workers
by distracting them with drama.
While it's critical to hire the right people-those naturally engaged
employees-it doesn't stop there. Even if you do a great job of hiring
the right people, then it's the leadership's responsibility to make sure
that you retain these employees by sustaining their engagement. That's
If strong leadership skills are so important to employee engagement
and commitment, and ultimately company success, why haven't
leadership programs produced the desired results?
I'll answer that with an anecdote-a familiar tale of woe. Let's say a
new company started out with everyone very excited and engaged
about marketing a new technology. It grows and has success. There is
great camaraderie. Over time, as the company grows and new people
come in, a shift occurs. It becomes clear that the company is no longer
the high performing, energized team it used to be. Its managers have
great technical skills, but they are lacking in the people skills required to
sustain this performance. There's friction, there's tension. People are at
each other's throats, morale is sinking, and sales are beginning to sag.
So top management gets together and says, "We need to do
something to fix this-fast. Maybe we should get some leadership
training to help our managers build morale and smooth things out. This
seems like the solution. So they decide: If we get some training, let's hire
the best! Let's make sure it's experiential and let's have great fun. We
want to make sure everybody has a good time; we want to bond.
So the company goes out and spends a ton of dollars hiring this very
top-rated training company, and everybody goes away for a sustained
period of time, whether it's for a long weekend, a two-week retreat, or
whatever. There are high expectations, but what's likely to happen?
Everybody does have a good time, and they all go away thinking this
was wonderful, and the training company did do a great job and got
high marks. But here is the rub: In the short-term, you might see some
minor change as employees carry the afterglow of the experience with
them. However, a year later, you look around and you say to yourself,
"What's really changed?" Regrettably, you find that people are still doing
what they were doing before and not much has changed at all-SOS:
Same ol' stuff.
Why don't we see any change? The primary reason is that longlasting
behavioral change is hard. No bones about it. Unfortunately,
most companies have the mistaken belief that training is an event. The
perception is: send people to training and voila-they're fixed. It's
important to understand that training is not an event, it's a process. We
can't just expect the training company-no matter how fabulous it is-
to make the differences for us. The training company's role is to create
the environment and deliver the right training. This is where most
leadership programs fail-they fall into the "training is an event" trap.
For real behavioral change to take place there also has to be a front-end
assessment, active involvement of the participant and the participant's
manager, periodic opportunities for reinforcement and coaching, and
interim feedback and final measures. This is an overview of the Train-to-
Ingrain process I use to insure that training sticks. This term was coined
by a brilliant colleague of mine, Dr. Denny Coates, CEO of Performance
Will you expand on the concept of why training is a process and not
I'll be happy to. It's my passion! Let's first examine how the brain
works to get a clearer understanding. It's very difficult to change existing
behaviors. It's much easier to learn new behaviors. When we're learning
leadership skills we're not really learning new skills. For example,
managers have been using their current management or leadership
behaviors for years. Even though they may be using poor behaviors,
they are very good at behaving badly-after all, they've been practicing
for years! So, when they embark on leadership training, they're taking a
maladaptive skill and attempting to turn it into an adaptive one. In order
to do this, the maladaptive skill, which has been with them for years and
has really been wired deeply into their brains, must be disconnected.
That is the challenge and doesn't happen overnight. (Too bad we can't
set blasting caps in the brain to blow out all the bad behaviors and start
For example, I can teach you a new skill and tell you why it is
important to change your behavior. And cognitively, you know that
makes sense, and you get it. But are you going to do it on a regular
basis or fall back on old habitual behaviors because they are easy and
Let's look at a very concrete example to demonstrate how this works.
If I said to you, "Would you like me to show you a new way to tie your
shoes so they won't come untied? And the neat thing is that you don't
have to double-knot them anymore and deal with the hassle doubleknotting
gives you when you have to untie them."
You say to me, "Yes, Elizabeth, that sounds great. Show me."
I show it to you, you're thrilled about it, and you're so excited that
you even go home and you show your significant other. Both of you
think it's pretty cool. That evening you go to bed, but in the middle of
the night your smoke alarm goes off. You're scrambling to get your
shoes on . . . but . . . which way are you going to tie your shoes? More
than likely, you'll tie them the old way. That's because changing a skill so
that it's comfortable and natural requires practice, reinforcement,
practice, coaching, and more practice. Tying your shoes is not a new
skill. Until you disconnect the old behavior from your brain, and replace
it with a skill that feels comfortable and natural, you will fall back on
your own patterns when under stress. This same concept applies to
It's important to remember that no amateur ever made it to the pros
without practice and a coach. Coaching and practice are critical to
success. Let's look at Tiger Woods. Tiger was at the top of his game
when he won his first Masters. He was doing really great and then he
made a decision to change his swing. For those folks who follow golf,
they would soon discover that Tiger Woods' game tanked as he was
learning to change his swing. Why? Because often, when you're learning
something new, you get worse before you get better! But, he practiced,
practiced, and practiced, along with feedback and reinforcement from
his coach; and he soon came back stronger than ever.
So what this indicates, in terms of leadership training programs, is
that you have to structure a plan that gives learners opportunities to
have lots of practice, feedback, and reinforcement. You also need to be
sure that they're properly motivated by understanding where they are
now by assessing their current skill levels and providing them with tools
for improvement. Managers need to know employees' current skill levels
and have the patience to understand that directly after training, the
learners often get worse before getting better. They also need to
recognize that, as managers, their role is to act as coaches to help
learners improve and practice their new skills. This is a whole different
way of looking at training programs. You don't want a training program
that is just general and conceptual; it needs to be skill-based with
opportunities for upfront measures, training, practice, reinforcement,
So it sounds as if it's not just the people in the training department
who are responsible for the success of the program, but the whole team
of people. So how does one assign accountability for the different parts
and then measure the success of the program?
Unfortunately, the training department has often been the scapegoat
for training failures. For example, if you ask a manager, "What's your
accountability in leadership training process?" Don't be surprised if you
hear the manager respond, "Training is the training department's job.
My job is to budget for it and arrange to get the learners' areas covered
while they are away-that's all that's expected of me."
If I were Dr. Phil, I would say, "And how's that workin' for you?" The
bottom line is that managers cannot take a passive role if they want
training to be effective. But that is only one piece.
The process begins with a baseline measure of the employee's
current skill level. I use a 360 feedback tool to gather information from
the employee's manager and direct reports. I use one that is automated,
simple to administer, has flexible reporting, allows for commentary, and
is cost effective. This step lets people know where they are. People like
to have a sense of certainty-the brain likes to have certainty because it
reduces stress and frees it to learn. Brain research shows that the brain
functions best when people know the expectations. So by providing a
front-end assessment, the learner is given a level of certainty and
expectation-this is where I am and this is where I need to be.
With assessments, we now have employees who are motivated and
understand that management is working with them to get them to
where they want to be. Then the training department puts together a
practical, skill-based training, using appropriate adult-learning
principles. The managers are informed of what the employees are going
to be working on. This puts managers in a position to observe and help
their employees by giving learners opportunities to practice and work
on those skills. In this scenario, we've got the manager involved, having
a coaching responsibility, a training department arranging for the right
skill-based programs, and the employees motivated and ready to learn
by an understanding of why they're going to training in the first place.
Accountabilities are clearly placed.
I've seen situations where companies will send an employee to a
training program and the employees are not really sure why they're
going. With our Train-to-Ingrain process, it is very clear why they're
going. Subsequently, the manager looks for opportunities to give them
feedback, and the employee can then make improvements along the
way. What the training department will do is provide additional
opportunities for reinforcement by bringing in coaches and scheduling
"lunch-and-learns," so people can talk about their successes and
challenges on the job. These discussions are critical to the learning
process as supported by brain research.
Will you elaborate more on the brain research links to leadership
I'll be glad to. There's been quite a bit of research with regard to the
brain and how it reacts to different situations and how it learns. The
common terms of "information overload" and the old adage of "I need
to sleep on that," have real meaning here. Let me explain. All-day,
intensive training tends to be ineffective. Spaced learning is ideal
because to integrate learning, the brain needs to be able to sleep and
rest. It also needs practice and reinforcement to generate and deepen
neurological connections so they are firmly anchored. This means, as a
trainer, information must be presented in chunks, and classes need to be
shorter. More than an hour's worth of information and the brain just
starts to shut down. It just can't handle it. It's like running out of RAM
(random access memory) on your computer. If you want learning to
stick, the new information must go from short-term memory to longterm
memory. This requires periods of sleep followed by practice for
Let me give you a further computer analogy as it relates to behavior
change. When you pull up a document in a computer, you're really
operating in RAM. Any changes you make would show up on your
screen, but this is really only temporary. If you don't hit the save button
to make it permanent and you turn off your computer, that particular
change is forever lost. To get things to save to your brain's long-term
memory, you can't overload it, you need to sleep on it, and then have
active practice exercises and additional feedback to reinforce it. If you
don't do these things, it's like forgetting to hit the save button on your
computer. It just won't stick.
Companies traditionally send people away for several days or a week
of intensive training. This cost effective approach consolidates travel and
minimizes work disruption. However, based on current brain research,
we need to rethink our delivery methods. By developing training
programs that can offer information in chunks and create opportunities
for active practice and allow participants to get plenty of sleep and
relaxation, behavior change is much more likely. So even though in the
short-term, the Train-to-Ingrain approach is probably more costly up
front, it ultimately is more cost effective in the end.
One more thing about the brain-it likes to be social and make
connections among its neurons to really anchor in the new learning. As a
result, you want to make sure that employees are engaged in active kinds
of learning techniques along the way. By having participants talk about
their experiences-their successes and their challenges-they help each
other's brains to grow and connect more neurons.
Earlier you touched on assessments, skill-based training, and delivery
methods to use in the Train-to-Ingrain process. What criteria should we
look for when selecting assessment tools and training programs?
When doing front-end assessment, it's important to choose a 360
degree feedback platform that preserves the anonymity of the raters.
This helps to insure candid feedback. The system also should allow you
to customize the questions so you can measure the desired leadership
skills. Additionally, you want the feedback to allow for comments
because ratings alone aren't enough. Comments are often the richest
part of the feedback process. However, you need to make sure that the
respondents receive training on how to give behaviorally-based
constructive comments. So many times I'll see reports with comments
that say general things like, "He's really a great guy." Well, what does a
"great guy" mean? That doesn't tell me anything. I need to know what
specific behaviors a person is doing that either needs to start, stop, or
continue. It is important for employees to know exactly what they need
to do to perform better. (Remember, the brain likes certainty to stay
calm and be open to learning.)
The system should be cost effective. That means it should allow you
to do multiple surveys without additional charge. This permits interim
checks and a final evaluation. Full automation and Web accessibility are
critical to efficiency. The system should be easy to administer and
provide well-designed reports that are uncluttered and easy to read.
There are lots of good systems available today. I personally use 20/20®
Insight GOLD. I find it to be one of the most robust, cost effective,
efficient systems on the market. Finally, it's best to have a trained person
to debrief the employee about understanding the report and creating a
When it comes to training programs, you'll want one that is practical
and skill-based, using all the good adult learning principles that track
with the latest brain research. As I mentioned earlier, that includes
offering shorter bits of information, getting the employee engaged and
interactive by involving their participation, and allowing for discussion
by encouraging them to share their experiences. This technique works
well with the natural brain process of seeking connections. Research
shows that the brain lights up more when you are making your own
connections rather than having somebody connect for you. So look for
leadership programs that promote these discussion opportunities. They
should also provide practice and reinforcement activities, such as roleplay
and online options for a blended learning approach.
Ideally, online courses are fully integrated with the classroom content
and can be used to reinforce learning through refresher activities during
"lunch-and-learns" where deeper connections can be made through
ongoing dialogue. Then six months to nine months after the training is
complete, do a reassessment of that person and see how he or she has
improved. This step will let you know what's working and where the
person may need some additional coaching, training, or reinforcement.
You may determine that the person really doesn't belong in a leadership
role and would be more effective as an individual contributor. All of that
is important information and contributes to the learning loop.
So it's the combination of a front-end assessment and good adult
learning principles, such as practice and reinforcement, which are critical
for your success.
Another very important aspect of the classroom training is that you
not only need to provide practical skills, but you also have to give
participants opportunities for role-modeling and role-playing to practice
those skills. So look for programs that show the right behavior using
very brief, professionally developed video or DVD scenarios. Then break
the group into triads to practice these skills. These triads involve one
person acting as the observer, another taking the role of the employee,
and another becoming the manager. Allow for a two- to three-minute
role-play, and then have them swap roles. Now the employee becomes
the observer, the observer becomes the manager, and so on, so they all
get a chance to function in each capacity and continue to practice the
new skills. All participants experience the skill in action to help them
apply it on the job. Then several weeks later, during a reinforcement
activity, such as a lunch-and-learn, they can discuss how it's been
working for them.
So let me see if I can understand this Train-to-Ingrain program you
have. The main challenge is to permanently replace a maladaptive skill
with an adaptive skill by hardwiring the brain to create long-lasting
behavioral change, right?
Absolutely; you've got it. That's it in a nutshell.
And the Train-to-Ingrain methodology is designed to shift and
spread the accountability to insure the learner is motivated and the right
skills are being trained and reinforced.
That's right. We have the learners who will come to class motivated
because they now are clear about expectations and why they need to
improve on new skills. They've gotten feedback from their managers and
direct reports about what behaviors need to be continued, stopped, or
changed. This information helps them capitalize on their strengths and
work on their development.
The role and responsibility of the training department is to provide
the right kind of training resources and environment. Finally, the
manager's role is to offer coaching, reinforcement, and support to the
employee. All three-the manager, training department, and
employee-are now accountable for a clearly defined piece of the
What an interesting concept. And the recent brain research seems to
support the methodology.
Absolutely. One of the programs that I use is an award-winning series
published by Vital Learning. It is a skill-based, practical program that
employs solid adult learning principles. For example, in its "Essential
Skills of Leadership Module," it addresses the importance of building
and maintaining an employee's self-esteem. Esteem-building is critical
to employee engagement and backed by current brain research.
I find this part of the brain research particularly fascinating. It shows
that if an employee is berated by his or her manager, the brain reacts in
a very interesting way. It starts producing cortisol, which is naturally
created during stress situations. When under a stress situation, the place
where memory is stored (the hippocampus) starts to shrink. This reduces
the production of neurons that affect memory, mood, and other mental
functions. As a result, the brain doesn't think clearly or perform well.
(Probably because primitive man was designed to react in stress or fear
situations to fight or flee, not think!)
Conversely, if an employee is made to feel valued, then the brain
produces serotonin, and the employee feels better. This condition allows
the employee's mind to be open to change and learning as well as be
more supportive of his or her manager, making the relationship with
that manager even stronger. A strong relationship with one's manager,
as I mentioned in the very beginning of our conversation, is a key factor
in insuring employee engagement and retention.
This research is not only interesting from a neurological standpoint,
but also directly connects to learning and engagement.
To recap, the lessons that we learn from neuroscience is that people
need to have sleep so they can integrate learning into long-term
memory because the brain shuts off after a period of time. Learning
needs to be broken down into bite-sized nuggets. Social pain-being
rejected or berated-has an impact on the brain the same way that
physical pain does. So if someone feels social pain, such as being
berated, the brain lights up similarly to when it is experiencing physical
pain. If the manager berates the employee or treats the employee
poorly, this is not going to be helpful. Social fairness and respect
provide good chemicals in the brain, while unfairness and disrespect
create just the opposite of that. If you're overly stressed because of fear
of uncertainty, you're not going to be able to think clearly, and, your
mind is likely to shut down.
So, for example, in these training programs, leaders need to give
employees appropriate performance expectations and communicate the
vision of the organization so they know where they're going. They need
a road map. If employees feel uncertain, then this arouses fear, and fear
reduces their ability to make good decisions.
Additionally, employees also need to have some kind of involvement
or ownership of their particular situation in the organization so that they
can contribute on a greater level and make brain connections. Having
some choice enables their brain to function more openly, allowing it to
be more insightful. All of these factors are interconnected and
contribute to the learning process.
This seems to be a real advancement of the old learning model that I
learned in the fifties, and especially the model that came out in the early
seventies. They called it "spaced repetition."
Spaced repetition is still a part of it, which comes in the form of
practice, but is only one component.
Interesting. I really appreciate all the time you've taken with me today
to answer these questions. It's not only fascinating but I've learned a lot
here that I'm going to think a whole lot about. I've taken copious notes.
I really do appreciate your being with us today.
Thank you. Seeing people achieve success is my passion, so it was my
pleasure being with you today.
Have a question for Dr. Elizabeth? Ask or leave a comment below!