The Missing Link

Behavioral learning, experts say, is the missing link to help transform people's mind-sets and behaviors when an organization faces major organizational change.

Thursday, April 18, 2013
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Like most organizations these days, your company is probably facing a big change of some sort, or, perhaps a major change is right around the corner. Now, let's imagine for a moment, a fellow employee at your company: we'll call her Maria. And for illustrative purposes, let's say your organization follows a pretty typical approach to managing and communicating the change.

Here's how things might play out:

Maria receives an initial e-mail from leadership announcing an upcoming organizational change -- it's a biggie -- impacting organizational structure, work processes, and overall culture. She reads the rationale and the benefits to the company. She wonders what it will mean for her, which makes her a bit anxious. She talks about the change with her peers, who don't have any more information or insights than she does. Over time, she hears leaders and HR reinforce the initial messages and encourage all employees to get on board. 

Assuming Maria trusts her leaders, she may feel somewhat relieved to know they're behind the change and its value. She feels a little better, but still wonders what it will mean for her personally and her work. Questions such as these keep running through her head:

·      Will I still have a job?

·      How will my job change?

·      Will I be able to be successful?

·      Do I still want to work for this company?

Maria continues to receive updates on the change through e-mails, town hall meetings and other forums. Although she realizes the changes are out of her control, her anxiety remains. Eventually, she receives word her job is safe (whew), but her role will be quite different (oh, boy). She gets invited to a training course to help her learn new work processes and systems. This helps, giving her some comfort level about the new workflow and technology. But, Maria knows she'll be working with an entirely new team, focused on new priorities and goals, with an emphasis on new behavioral competencies.

And more questions begin to swirl in her head:

  • What will the team dynamics be like?
  • Will we work well together?
  • Will I be able to learn and meet the new competency expectations?

Day 1 comes, and the switch is flipped. 

Envision the Result

How comfortable do you think Maria felt on Day 1? How long do you think it took for the team to gel? Do you think the team was fully prepared to deliver on the new priorities and goals? Do you think the new competency expectations were reached within the first month? Year? Ever?

While Maria's story is simply illustrative, it's also relatively common. The company used several different levers to help manage the change, including communication, leadership and training. And they seemed to manage the change fairly well. However, they missed a critical aspect of effectively managing change that could ultimately derail the whole initiative, diminish the ROI, or significantly delay other anticipated benefits.  

The missing link? Behavioral learning.

Consider the Data

Towers Watson conducted the 2011-2012 Change and Communication ROI Study to clarify the meaning of effective change management, and assess its influence on an organization's overall success and financial performance. Participants included more than 600 organizations across industries and regions. Most organizations had experienced significant change over the prior two years, and the typical organization had gone through common organizational changes (e.g., reorganization, implementation of a new performance management system). Most respondents were responsible for employee communications.

Through this research, we identified six activities that truly influence overall change management success, regardless of the type of change. The first is learning.

By learning, we don't mean dropping a training manual of new standard operating procedures on an employee's desk or holding a one-hour webcast to introduce a new work process. We mean providing the knowledge and skills necessary to adapt to change. And effective learning has clear ties to the other five activities for success -- leading (providing a clear vision of the new expectations), measuring (setting clear, measurable goals up front), communicating (guiding and motivating employees), involving (creating a sense among employees and leaders that they are all "in it together"), and sustaining (reinforcing behavior change over time).

Our study showed a significant gap in how organizations with high change effectiveness approach learning versus those with low change effectiveness.The figure below shows that creating accountability for new skills and behavior and encouraging employee feedback are keys to making change stick. An early focus on learning can set the stage for these kinds of high change effectiveness outcomes.

Source: Towers Watson 2011-2012 Change and Communication ROI Study


In Maria's example above, the company rightly included technical training as part of their change management approach -- an important component of skill-building and employee readiness. However, they failed to consider using behavioral learning as a lever of change. This oversight can have a powerful impact on how employees feel and act when initially taking on a new role, working with a different team and/or adapting to new competency expectations.

In our change-management experience, clients rarely overlook technical training. Organizations recognize the need to provide it to get work done following a change. But they often assume that employees will figure out the softer, cultural aspects of change on their own and so, overlook one of the most impactful levers of change -- behavioral learning -- which helps employees:

  • Further understand the impact of change on themselves and others;  
  • Learn more about the cultural, interpersonal aspects of the change;
  • Better prepare by asking questions, working through scenarios and playing off peers' reactions; and
  • Try out the change in a safe environment before it becomes reality.

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And as a result, it helps the organization reach its change objectives more quickly, saving time and money in the process.

While some may consider this soft-skill learning too soft, we believe behavioral learning is where the rubber meets the road in changing people's mind-sets and behaviors.

Learn From Others

Towers Watson recently worked with the leadership and HR department of a major oil refinery undergoing a significant restructuring. The new organizational model involved new work processes and new teams. These teams brought together two entirely different parts of the business: operators who were typically college-educated, full-time employees and maintenance workers who were primarily less-educated workers from a union contractor. 

In the past, a complex and sensitive dynamic akin to a "master-servant" relationship had existed between these two employee groups. But to work effectively in the new organizational model, they needed to partner as equals. One of the critical elements of the organization's comprehensive change management strategy was behavioral learning events.

In initial learning events developed by Towers Watson and HR, leaders of the two groups worked on becoming one successful, integrated leadership team and building skills in decision making and conflict management. They were united when the combined operator/maintenance employees joined them, and co-facilitated with Towers Watson on team-building sessions to collaboratively discuss new management processes and determine work rules. 

The sessions started slowly -- as many employees were uncomfortable about bringing sensitive topics to the table -- but eventually, the structured exercises and discussions led to an atmosphere of openness and respectful dialogue.

Employees left the sessions with more understanding and empathy for the other group's perspectives. They shared that they had gotten to know each other better personally and felt more prepared now that they understood what Day 1 under the new operational model would be like. In the end, the new processes got off the ground much more quickly and with fewer problems than anticipated. Many attributed the program's success to their employees' ability to work through most of the interpersonal dynamics and potential challenges ahead of time.

Behavioral learning offers employees the opportunity not only to get comfortable in their own (new) shoes, but also to walk in the shoes of their colleagues.

Make the Case

Some organizations might shy away from adding the expense of behavioral learning programs to the already high cost of making significant change. But there is a powerful role for HR to play in showing leadership the investment is well worth it, as the outcomes -- from both financial and people perspectives -- can far outweigh the costs. 

For instance, Towers Watson research shows that companies that are highly effective at both communication and change management are 2.5 times as likely to outperform their peers as companies that are not highly effective in either area. It also shows that the benefits of investing in behavioral learning (and change management overall) extend beyond the current change initiatives, and they can help with future ones, too.

HR executives who can prove the value of high-touch, interpersonal learning interventions can help their companies move the needle more significantly and more quickly on the success measures of their current change -- as well as set themselves up for future change management success. Engaging in open, honest conversations and experiences with employees can offer invaluable insights into your workforce's attitudes, values and concerns. And those insights can help you optimally manage the changes underway today, as well as inform your change strategy for tomorrow.

Tracy Butchee is a senior consultant in Towers Watson's talent management practice based in Austin, Texas, with a specialization in change management. Lara Paukovits is a Los Angeles-based consultant in Towers Watson's communication and change management practice.

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