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Nik Kinley


Director & Head of Talent Strategy

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Why do we not talk about behaviour change in L&D?


“You know, you’re just like my grandmother”. As statements go, it wasn’t inherently controversial. But the fact that I was saying it to a 12 year-old boy certainly got everyone’s attention. Especially the boy’s.

It was a technique I’d learnt as a psychotherapist. Say something to wrong-foot the client, to grab their attention and make them grasp for meaning, and then say what you really wanted them to hear.

“One day she’s lucid; the next day she looks right through you and has no idea who you are. And with you, there are days you say things with real meaning, and then others when it’s like you’re not really here, and you’re hiding from all the important conversations. And just like my grandmother, I miss it when you’re not here, and I wonder if you do, too.” Years later I met the boy again and he still remembered that moment and the need to be present where you are. It was just a small technique, but one I’ve used many times before and since.

Why is it so hard to change someone’s behaviour?

I worked as a forensic psychotherapist for nearly ten years, with sex offenders, drug addicts, and persistent young offenders. For ten years I studied different types of psychotherapy and tried all sorts of different approaches and techniques. I felt I needed every tool possible at my disposal, because the challenge of changing people’s behaviour was so tough.

Nigh on fifteen years ago, I swapped locations. I stayed in the business of behaviour change, but moved into the corporate world, working first as a consultant and then in internal roles within large global businesses. And I discovered two things. First, that the mental processes I observed as a psychotherapist working with serious offenders were not much different from those I observed in highly accomplished executives. People can be wildly different, but the way the mind works is pretty much the same. Tinker, tailor, soldier or spy, the processes through which behaviours and thinking patterns are established and can then be changed are more or less identical.

Second, I found to my surprise that behaviour change was a phrase I hardly ever heard. Much of what corporate learning and development tries to achieve boils down to changing behaviour to improve performance. Yet though HR and managers alike talked of coaching employees and giving feedback, skills training and technical learning, ‘behaviour change’ was missing.

The missing link

So absent is behaviour from the equation that if you ask the average designer of corporate learning solutions to outline their theory of behaviour change, you are likely to get a response that goes no further than mentioning differences in learning styles or types of training. And fields that have a great deal to say about how to change peoples’ behaviour, such as behaviour economics and psychotherapy, are rarely referred to and drawn upon. Of course, there is a barely a technique in coaching that did not originate in psychotherapy, but this feels hushed up and covered over in an attempt to banish images of the therapy couch and make coaching feel more business-relevant.

This may sound like semantics, but the words we use matter. The language of ‘learning and development’ engenders a line of thinking and the consideration of issues that are quite different from the ones that are raised if we talk of behaviour change. The challenge of changing behaviour is not the same as the challenge of imparting information or teaching skills, and not talking about it prevents us from recognising these different challenges and acting to meet them. As a result, the tools that leaders, managers, and HR professionals have at their disposal are limited, deprived of techniques that other fields have long used. In fact, a global survey we are conducting into behaviour change for an upcoming book shows 74% of leaders are unsure what techniques to use to change people’s behaviour, and 91% are unsure how to make change stick.

Sitting in that room with that boy all those years ago, I felt I needed all the techniques I could muster. Today, working in some of the world’s biggest organisations, I feel no different. Changing behaviour is tough, and if businesses, leaders and HR are to succeed at it, they need to move beyond the language of learning and development and start talking about what they are doing as behaviour change, so they can address its challenges and draw upon a fuller range of methods and techniques to deliver it.

9 Responses

  1. Thanks for the comments
    Hi All
    It seems that one issue is whether changing what we call learning will genuinely have any impact on how people view the process and what is involved. Personally, I think it would make a difference; but I also don’t really care that much what we call it because for me this is not about rebranding, but about refocusing. So the renaming is just a means to an end.

    As for the other point that has been made, that people can learn without changing their behavior, I would of course agree. But I think there may be a misunderstanding going on around what we mean by ‘behavior’. For me it is not just “personal demeanor or attitude’, but also habits, skills, and ways of doing things. It is anything that is behavioral. That is why I think models of development that are primarily based on learning knowledge seem so out of place.
    And finally, as for which approaches I tend to take…I was trained as a systemic psychotherapist, but operated for many years in a context in which cognitive-behavioral approaches are those most able to secure funding, and in recent years have taken a keen interest in behavioral economics. In other words, I’m an eclectic, and will be trying to reflect that in a new book I’m writing, in which we will explore behavioral, cognitive, systemic, and behavior economics approaches to creating a context for change.
    Thanks again for your comments and the interesting discussion

  2. Open Mind

    I am interested in using a range of different tools to assist with behaviour change including combining expert consultants with smart technology. Tech is never a solution in itself but I am increasingly convinced that social, collaborative and intuitive systems can help people engage with the need for change as well as giving clear and achievable routes for them to take. The only tech result that will stick will have to work hand in glove with experts whatever they are called; L&D or Behaviour Change or any other tag

  3. Not the same thing

    Someone can learn and develop without affecting their behaviour one iota.  Entire skillsets can be acquired without someone's personal demeanour or attitude being modified..

    Perhaps we need another term to distinguish personal development from development as a person.  Many people are highly resistant to external change, and even more resistant to internal change.  Internal change can often mean admitting you were wrong, or at least, not fully informed.  Many people are reluctant to admit even this tiniest of weaknesses.

    "First, that the mental processes I observed as a psychotherapist working with serious offenders were not much different from those I observed in highly accomplished executives."

    These people are a distinct personality type – heavy alphas.  And alphas are never, ever, wrong.

  4. Behaviour change starts with us

    Good article Nik.  Thanks for bringing the subject to everyone's attention.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the need for people professionals to focus on the "so what" of learning and development i.e. behaviour change that improves performance rather than the "what" of theories and concepts that will only create a difference when applied effectively.

    However, I don't think it is a question of what we call it.  Peter is right that changing the jargon doesn't make a difference.  Instead I think the focus is on how L&D design and deliver initiatives.  In other words we need to change our own behaviour in order to change others.

  5. Question: which psychotherapy approaches/techniques?

    Hi Nic, interesting article that caught my attention as we (colleagues & me) are talking more explicitly about behaviour change with managers in our organisation. Question for you:  you said that for 10 years you studies psychotherapy and other approaches & techniques – wondering if you would offer your opinion about which type of psychotherapy/approach/techniques you've found to be the most useful?

    This is a question from an L&D specialist who has been, and continues to do her best to build her own toolkit, and also support leaders and managers in motivating & developing others

  6. Behaviour Change not L&D

    I completely concur.  It has taken years to move away from calling all learning interventions 'training' to talking about 'learning and development initiatives'. Now we need to push to change the terminology further to using 'behaviour change' as the norm.  We use this term regularly with clients and it is gaining positive impact.  So maybe it is up to us as external facilitators, coaches, consultants, to drip-feed a different terminology to help alter mindsets.

  7. Fashion, turn to the right. Fashion, turn to the left …

    HR changes labels more frequently than the rise and fall of hemlines, but generally with less interest.  I'm sorry, but I don't think this rebranding helps at all.  The CIPD rebrands itself every few years to no greater value.  Changing the jargon does not do much for the result.

  8. Behaviour Change

    Thank you for the article.  I agree with your perspective.  I also trained as a psychotherapist and worked with adults and with young people with challenging behaviour and now work as a coach and consultant/trainer.  I find that organisations are increasingly looking to our services for the psychological aspects of leadership.  I am a Teaching & Supervising Transactional Analyst (with Organisational and Psychotherapy specialties) and it used to be that organisations had a problem and just wanted a solution, regardless of the approach.  Today many have heard about TA and seek it as a way to enhance development and enable leaders to progress and create high performance teams.  Once people develop self-awareness and learn to be Mindful they are then more confident and willing to have those courageous conversations that lead to fruitful relationships.

    Whilst we work with feelings, thinking and behaviour we are Mindful of the need to maintain a boundary between coaching and psychotherapy.  

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Nik Kinley

Director & Head of Talent Strategy

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