Making Learning Matter: 11 Simple Commandments to Influence Behavior

By Stephen M. Paskoff

“They‘re simply not getting it. Managers, executives and employees are saturated with information and they’re zoning out. We give our leaders and employees great training videos to watch. We have them go to classes that address our issues. We deliver engaging e-learning and we send them reminders. But something’s not working. They aren’t applying the key points they’re supposed to learn. How can we fix this?”

In the last 25 years, I’ve heard this frustration expressed about initiatives focusing on topics ranging from discrimination to abusive conduct to encouraging the raising of concerns to ethics and compliance responsibilities. Yet, the dissatisfaction persists, even as new technologies have dramatically improved our ability to reach everyone at anytime with customized, specific and interesting content at their desktop.

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A “checklist” of 11 learning commandments

As I wrote in Maximizing Workplace Outcomes and Behaviors: Checklists: Yes; Check-the-Box: No, I believe in checklists as a way to get things done and simplify complex problems. So here’s a checklist of “commandments” to consider as you work to influence behavior rather than delivering information.

  1. Changing behavior is more complex than delivering information. This is the most important commandment; all others derive from it. Information is easy to deliver, but structuring information, learning the information, and reinforcing the information are more complex. Ask yourself how many single interactions, life experiences or learning events, no matter how clear and effective, have an ongoing impact on how you act.
  2. Manage your messages: Keep them simple and few. It’s better to have a few messages that are frequently repeated and reinforced than multiple messages that are infrequently delivered and never reinforced. Group together similar initiatives like diversity and inclusion or ethics and compliance. Too many messages are confusing and fatiguing.
  3. There’s a difference between entertaining an audience and influencing behavior. It’s easy to deliver entertaining and humorous content. However, unless the message is taken as seriously as intended, the entertainment won’t affect behavior. In fact, the jokes may be more memorable than the message – clearly not the intended purpose.
  4. Vague messages lead to vague results. Failing to develop an action-based message means that people will simply interpret those vague messages through their own perspectives. As an example, “Don’t lie or fabricate records” is a clearer and more specific standard than “act with integrity.”
  5. People follow leaders. Unless leaders reinforce messages and apply them to their own behaviors, the only message employees will hear is, “None of this matters.”
  6. It’s got to matter to me. Too many business messages are presented from the point of view of benefits to the organization. If you want people to change their behavior, they have to understand what’s in it for them.
  7. Don’t tell me; let me tell you. Adults don’t like to be told to change their behavior. If you want people to change, you must not only give them standards, but also interactive learning experiences that lead participants to discover for themselves that change is important.
  8. If I have to teach others, I’m more likely to do it myself. When organizations distribute information passively, they miss a key element of making it stick. Instead, give participants responsibility for communicating information to others. Then they will follow the principles themselves.
  9. Don’t confuse technical information with what must be applied. Too often organizations develop complex standards based on laws and regulations. Instead, figure out what behavioral problems those standards address and emphasize them. For example, compliance training should affect conduct, not turn team members into first-year law students.
  10. Reward the standard; enforce the breach. For learning to matter, there must be consequences: recognition for those who meet standards and consequences for those who do not. Information without consequences simply doesn’t matter.
  11. You don’t know our organization like we do. Yes, learning must be tailored so it is seen as relevant to the practices and issues faced in daily business. Insiders know more than outsiders and sometimes have reservations as to whether others can “understand” and “depict” their cultures and workplaces realistically. However, learning about organizational issues from client insiders is not hard to do. What’s far harder is making certain that the underlying message is seen as realistic, important, credible and clear.

This excerpt from Simplicity Rules: 12 Thoughts For the 2012 Workplace is published by TLNT with the express permission of Employment Learning Innovations, Inc. [ELI, Inc.].Simplicity Rules is the copyrighted material of ELI, Inc. All rights reserved. No portions may be extracted, copied or duplicated without the express written permission of an officer of ELI, Inc.

Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., is the founder, president and CEO of ELI®, an Atlanta-based training company that teaches professional workplace conduct, helping clients translate their values into behaviors, increase employee contribution, build respectful and inclusive cultures, and reduce legal and ethical risk. Contact him at


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