Some people are (not) able to change

It is a perennial ritual. A good New Year’s eve needs fireworks, old favourites on the telly, mulled wine, and resolutions for the new year. Be it dieting, getting rid of one’s small vices, or spending more time with one’s family. There is one essential problem built into these resolutions: We forget them as quickly as we make them. End of story. But how can we expect people to change in business if they cannot even do so in private?

A model from health psychology is well-known: the empirically validated model of change stages by of C. DiClemente and J. Prochaska. It helps us understand these mechanisms. The model suggests that a lasting change in behaviour needs to complete a sequence of steps:

  • Step 1: Pre-contemplation
    We do not intend to change our behaviour as we don‘t see the problem.
  • Step 2: Contemplation
    The intention to change our behaviour grows but we are still ambivalent.
  • Step 3: Preparation
    We plan to change our behaviour soon and take the first steps in that direction.
  • Step 4: Action
    We change our behaviour.
  • Step 5: Maintenance
    We use the new behaviour over a longer period, make it a constant part of our repertoire and try to avoid a relaps.

What determines whether a person will reach step 5 and actually abide by his or her resolutions? The model emphasizes two aspects: the balance of the decision and the expectation of self-efficacy. The balance of the decision means the weighing up of advantages and disadvantages of changing one’s behaviour. If the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, the change will “pay off”. The expectation of self-efficacy refers to our belief that we will actually be able to maintain the new behaviour even in difficult circumstances. If we believe this, the change becomes more likely.
What does that mean for business practice? In view of the sobering realization that good intentions never last, we need to add some modesty. We do not need naïve optimism about the effect of workplace training on changed behaviour. People are able to change their behaviour for good, but it needs far more than common training practices offer. The individual outlook of the learner matters most.
A change in behaviour needs to be plausible, rewarding, and possible. Blanket training concepts and one-size-fits-all arrangements will have very little impact. If companies do not manage to engage with the individual preferences of their people, their training budgets are pointless waste. In view of the old debate about training budgets, the challenge remains to find the right balance in this area.