eLearning Leadership Blog

Join our growing community of more than 13,000 learning professionals!


Designing. For A Change.

Angel Greenby , instructional strategist

People were angry, hurt and shocked. They planned boycotts, wrote letters and even signed petitions. A political uprising? A response to a human rights violation? An endangered species threatened? Not exactly…it was Facebook. Facebook changed the way their 800 million active members viewed their news feeds and status updates.

Change. There are few guarantees in life, but change is one. So, why is it so hard to accept change? Why is there such resistance to change? And, how should we use the study of the psychology of human change to our advantage as we work to create performance changing learning?

ChangesIn my years designing learning solutions, I don’t recall a time when a client asked us to design training with a goal of keeping employee performance at the status quo. Sure, we’ve had plenty of “refresher” training requests, but these requests generally are the result of performance indicators showing slips in productivity, declining sales or increased error percentages.

The goal of 99.9% of training is to change performance. Employees are asked to change their behavior for any number of reasons: an upgrade to a software program, a new organizational procedure or process, to comply with ethical and regulatory business requirements or to increase in sales or customer satisfaction scores.

By studying theories of the psychology of the way humans react to change, we as developers of training can do our part to lessen the anxiety, frustration and hesitation to behavioral change.  My goal for this blog is to offer some specific steps you can take, rather than summarize a plethora of theories about change.

  • Follow the emotions.  In the book The Heart of Change, Kotter and Cohen suggest that behavioral change follows a See-Feel-Change sequence. To capitalize on this in training efforts, we have to remember that our learners are humans. They are not robots who will simply take data (content) and then make a change on the job. First, show the learner the problem or the solution to a problem. This “show” can be powerful through the images, stories, videos and testimonials you choose to use in the training. Next, through the interactions you create, you will move to the feel stage of the sequence. Allow your learners to feel frustration, anger and pessimism. Give them the opportunity to feel hope, pride or anticipation of success in their job because of using the new system. There are many ways you can demonstrate feelings in the characters of your training program – have their facial expression and body language change or write their thoughts out in a bubble over their head. Choose words that show you empathize with the learner’s feelings. The change phase only occurs through an internal desire to take action, which leads me to my next tip…
  • Be specific. Don’t beat around the bush or use ambiguous terms. To change behavior, you need to give specific direction on the actions that need to occur. Every year, people make New Year’s resolutions to “lose weight”. Unfortunately, this resolution often fails because it lacks clarity. Rather, the resolution could be written: “Take a brisk 30 minute walk three times a week before work.”  Instead of “Provide excellent service” be specific – “Use the customer’s name during your transaction.” In order to be specific, it may be helpful to…
  • Find, or create, a bright spot. I recently read the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. One valuable suggestion they offer is to showcase a bright spot – a person, department or branch that is the success story. Let’s say you’re looking to increase sales. Talk to the top sales folks; get their story and showcase it in the training. Looking to reduce errors? Which assembly plant has the fewest errors and what do they do differently? Get tips from the best and use them. Give your learners a role model. If this is an entirely new venture, create a bright spot. Create a character that employees can relate to and showcase the success she has from using this new process/software/technique. Finally….
  • Influence the influencers.  This is one area where you will need to wear more of your organizational development consultant hat rather than your instructional design hat. The truth is, we can design the best learning solution: follow the show, feel, change model, be super specific in our directions, create a shining bright spot and still fail miserably in changing performance. Why? Because our influencers aren’t influencing change. Humans are influenced – by leaders, by peers, by people they aspire to be like (think celebrity endorsements). Influencers in your organization can make or break the change. Your role is to find some influencers and involve them early in the design of the training. The worst affront to change efforts are statements like, “Sure, this is how corporate says we need to do things, but really…we don’t do it that way here.” 

Had Facebook heeded some of this advice prior to launching the new format – perhaps announcing the changes that were coming (show), generating excitement (feel) by creating a story of a user whose life is better now that she is able to see the instant her friend “likes” a photo (create a bright spot) – those 800 million users wouldn’t have been so upset. Of course, I don’t know too many Facebook users who jumped ship when the changes were made. But most organizations don’t have the luxury that Facebook does at the moment. Most of us need employees, and customers, who feel they are valued and that they are part of the organization.

By understanding how humans react to change, you can better design learning that motivates employees to make the changes the organization seeks. I encourage you to spend some time reading books and articles on the psychology of change. I promise it won’t be a fruitless effort.