The difficulty of un-learning

Written by Robin Hoyle,

For those charged with implementing change it can seem easy to say 'we need better training' as though a magic marker can be wielded like a magic wand and all will be well again. Read a newspaper report about demonstrable failings in a public service or corporate department and somewhere you can pretty much guarantee ‘better/more training’ will be prescribed as the solution.

So here’s the thing. I’m not sure better training is the answer. Whatever the question being asked, I think more training and better training probably isn’t the solution. In fact, quite the opposite. I think the answer might be better and more un-learning.

Think about it for a minute. Very often the issue isn’t that people who underperform have never learned how to do things. Mostly, the problem is that they’ve learned how to do things wrong. Of course, they may never have attended a course about how to give poor customer service, be a bit racist or fail to follow even basic data security rules, but that’s what they have learned. The stunning capability of people to do the wrong things demonstrates how effective informal learning really is. 

The challenge of changing ineffective behaviour is not learning new stuff – at least not at first. The challenge is un-learning the old stuff; the stuff learned by doing what everyone else does; the stuff learned because we needed to cut corners in order to meet targets; the stuff learned because the resources simply aren’t there to do things right; the stuff learned because following the rules takes time and 'I’m an activist, me. I just jump straight in. I don’t follow no rules.' (Including the rules of basic grammar, apparently.)

The definition of learning I’ve always used is 'the acquisition or modification of knowledge, skills, behaviours, values and preferences'. The inclusion of the word 'modification' presents us with that real challenge of addressing unacceptable or outdated performance standards in the workplace. It is further complicated by the focus on ‘behaviours, values and preferences’. Most times, I think people know what not to do or what they shouldn’t be doing. Knowledge isn’t the issue here. 'Feel the fear and do it anyway' has been translated into 'know it’s wrong and do it anyway'.


One of our difficulties with the whole un-learning thing is that we haven’t got many models of how to do it. If we look at the learning theorists of the last hundred years or so they have spent time and effort on looking at how new knowledge skills and behaviours are acquired. Many have focused exclusively on children and the young – with fewer bad habits to un-learn. 

The likes of Bloom and latterly Krathwohl have created taxonomies for how we learn new things. They have progressed beyond knowledge (the Cognitive domain). If we look at their work on the Affective domain (attitudes and values) the focus is on a student’s attitude to the learning rather than to attitudes beyond the learning. Changing attitudes and values at work requires a root and branch approach which resonates beyond the training room. Psychologists talk about norms and specifically ‘group norms’. These are behaviours which – while not necessarily desirable – are nonetheless encouraged within the group within which one works. Adjusting these behaviours requires the group norms to be tackled first – or at least alongside the move towards developing new skills.

This process of un-learning is unlikely to happen in the classroom (or at the end of an online module). It may be part of a social network, but the role of online collaboration in shifting entrenched behaviours is at best unproven and – one could argue – more likely to result in a reinforcement of existing cultures and group norms than in any active questioning of ‘how we do things around here’. 

Changing behaviours entrenched within the dominant culture of the team, department or organisation requires a review of the goals people have been set or have set themselves, the way these goals and tasks are achieved and the motivation provided to work ‘well’ – however well may be defined. It is complicated. Training can and should describe how things could be done, but the culture within which the work is performed will always have a more significant impact on whether things are done well, or even at all, once that training has happened.  

Of course, L&D professionals should not and do not expect training to have an end point when the elearning module shows as complete on the LMS or the training room door has closed behind course participants. They rely on things happening in the workplace which reinforce and embed the desirable new skills and behaviours. They want some space and time to be made available for people to put the new knowledge to use.  

This requires an input from peers and from line managers. It requires time and space in which outdated values and attitudes are eschewed in favour of new approaches. It requires people to be motivated to try new ways of working, to be rewarded for effort not just achievement and to be supported when things are difficult and heading back to the comfort zone of how we used to do things seems like the best option. 

As Daniel Pink outlines in this TED Talk the traditional approach to motivation and reward used in organisations is deeply flawed. The use of short-term targets, rewards and incentives are deeply unimpressive in relation to achieving real behavioural and attitudinal change.

The answer comes in a root-and-branch approach to addressing unwanted behaviour. It comes from managers making a commitment to change their practice. It comes from addressing cultural issues in the workplace. It comes from properly resourcing activity so that competence (the training part) is recognised as only one piece of the jigsaw of ‘capability’. By addressing these issues, the slip back to the ‘comfort zone’ of doing things the way we’ve always done them, becomes less available once the training which may be part of the solution has been delivered and the ‘trained’ have been handed back to their teams. 

More than anything, it comes from people turning away from the quick fix and the easy solution and the call for training as a knee-jerk reaction to bad news and bad behaviour. We can work the magic required, but we need fertile ground to plant the seeds of change.



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