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

business strategy.

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

the key.


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

Support Systems.


Will you expand on the concept of why training is a process and not

an event?


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

from scratch!)

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

management behaviors.

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,

and coaching.


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

development plan.

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.


Dr. N. Elizabeth Fried, author, consultant, and executive coach, is president of N. E. Fried and Associates, Inc. In 2010, Elizabeth was ranked among the world's top 15 most influential executive coaches by Coaching Gurus.  The Learning Engine and My Executive Coach are divisions of the firm, where she leads a team of highly...

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