To Help Training Stick, Change Mindset First

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Government leaders and L&D professionals often ask my company, the Arbinger Institute, why training doesn’t stick better for employees. When so much time, effort, and money is spent on training, shouldn’t the return on investment be higher? Why is it so easy for people to not apply what they learn in training?

In this post, I explore the root cause of this problem and introduce a tool to help training stick, dramatically boosting potential ROI. I want to start off by sharing a story. Stay with me, as it will reveal the underlying problem with getting training to stick.

Resistance and Avoidance

A few months ago, I moved to a new apartment. In the week before the move, my wife and I split the packing duties so we’d be ready for the big day.

But I didn’t really want to pack up and move. Work was busy; it wasn’t a good time for me. Every evening, all I wanted to do was relax.

So I avoided my share of the packing. I found reasons to stay late at work, and after coming home I’d play with my young daughter for as long as I could. By Friday, I’d finished less than a quarter of what I needed to. We were moving on Monday.

By Sunday morning, my wife had finished her share of the packing. I felt far behind—and became even more reluctant to do my part. As Sunday came to a close, I found myself resenting my wife, making up excuses for myself, and even thinking of reasons we shouldn’t move so that I wouldn’t have to pack.

A Change of Heart

Then I thought of things from my wife’s perspective. What would it be like to pack an entire house with someone who was dragging their feet, rolling their eyes, and not doing their share? I looked around and saw what a fantastic job my wife had done despite my difficult attitude. She had worked hard, caring deeply about our family’s success, and I’d made her life a lot harder by thinking of the move only in terms of how it affected me.

In that moment—as soon as I realized my impact on my wife—my bad feelings melted away and a wave of motivation washed over me. For the first time, I felt excited to pack and move. The next morning, I woke up earlier than my family and in three hours packed everything I needed to. I did it with a light heart and no feelings of resistance or resentment.

Mindset Makes the Difference

How does this story apply to making training stick? Notice that when I experienced a change in mindset, my whole perspective shifted.

At first, I had what we call an “inward mindset”—a singular focus on my own needs and objectives. From this mindset, certain behaviors made sense to me: avoiding packing, playing with my daughter instead of helping, and working late. These behaviors served my inward-mindset interests.


But after Sunday, I had a new way of seeing the situation. I’d shifted to what we call an “outward mindset,” in which we take into account our impact on others and look to be helpful to them.

As soon as I experienced a change in mindset, a door opened onto a whole new set of behaviors—behaviors that would not have made sense to me prior to this shift.

An Outward Mindset Foundation Helps Training Stick

Most training efforts focus on effecting behavioral change: we ask people to be more open, helpful, engaged, and so on.

These training efforts don’t stick because we ask people to change their behaviors without helping them change their mindset.

From a self-focused inward mindset, trainees might resist change, blame others, or comply for a while but revert to old behaviors as soon as the pressure or attention goes away. Without a change in mindset, different behaviors don’t make sense.

But with an outward mindset, new behaviors suddenly do make sense. Moreover, with an outward mindset people want to act in new, more helpful ways. The resistance, blame, and other dysfunctions we so often see in response to training melt away.

The Right Question to Ask

With this new understanding of how mindset drives behavior, we can see that if a mindset change precedes training, the training is more likely to stick. Thus, instead of asking, “How can we get new behaviors to stick?” we need to ask: How can we change mindset so that desired behaviors become natural?

This is the central question Arbinger helps organizations address.

A Tool for Changing Mindset

Meet SAM, a simple and powerful tool that helps individuals both change their own mindset and invite others to do the same.

SAM stands for see others, adjust efforts, and measure impact. It works in three steps:

  • See others. We see others as human beings who matter like we do. We do this by getting curious about them—their needs, challenges, objectives, and headaches. We ask questions and truly listen to understand what it’s like to be in their role. We might even ask how we have made it harder for them to accomplish their goals.
  • Adjust efforts. With this information, we analyze our own efforts. How might we have gotten in their way? What can we do differently to be more helpful to them? We then adjust our efforts to be more helpful.
  • Measure impact. We tell the person how we have adjusted and ask if our new efforts have truly helped them achieve their objectives.

And we repeat this SAM process, continually evaluating whether we’re being helpful and if there is anything else we can do. This process should be practiced as systematically as possible, not only with the people we lead but with everyone we affect in our role.
As you apply SAM in your work and life, remember that mindset is at the very core of what drives human behavior. If we can change mindset, we can more permanently change behavior—including the behaviors we want our training to make stick.

About the Author
Sam Whitney serves as the manager of global business development for the Arbinger Institute. With a background in international training, Sam has headed multiple training initiatives in more than 12 countries, managed learning for diverse teams and facilitated to groups on a wealth of topics, including sales strategy, culture transformation, and mindset change. In his role as manager of global business development, Sam works to develop Arbinger’s global strategy, including supporting Arbinger’s international partnerships and delivering workshops to overseas clients. He is also active in managing product distribution world wide and learning resources for Arbinger’s partners. 
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