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Skills or behaviour?

by Rebecca Trigg

Sometimes making a positive change happen isn’t about learning a new skill. Sometimes people already know what to do, and how to do it, but they aren't doing it. Rebecca Trigg unpicks the difference between skills and behaviours, how to get ‘uncomfortably specific’ in defining behaviours, and what to do to shift them.

If you asked most L&D professionals the purpose of their job, I’d guess many of them would say something about developing people or building skills. I think very few would say behaviour change.

It might be something to do with the language: developing, building, growing, they all give the sense that ‘more of’ something will mean an improvement somewhere.  Developing your employees, building their skill set, growing competencies – these are all admirable intentions, and no doubt will lead to benefit for individuals and organisations.

But sometimes problems can’t be solved simply by increasing knowledge or building skills. Sometimes people already know what to do. They know how to do it, but somehow, it just doesn’t happen.  

For example, I have the skills required to choose the apple over the donut. I have the knowledge that enables me to see the benefits of regular exercise. My children really do know how to put their dirty plates in the dishwasher… so why doesn’t it happen? That’s because it’s a behavioural issue. No matter how much training I give my children (they regularly attend my mandatory Saturday morning lectures), the rinse-and-stack behaviour just doesn’t happen.

And it’s the same in business. Employees know what to do, often they are perfectly capable of doing it, but it’s not happening.

In client meetings, subject matter experts often say to me – “Yeah, it’s really weird, because our policy is crystal clear, everyone knows not to do it, but we can see that it’s still happening.”  But – and here’s the strange thing – it's viewed as L&D’s problem to solve. Yet this isn’t a skills issue, it’s not about the need to develop people, this is purely about behaviour change.

So what do we say when a business comes to us with a problem to solve? Well, a good first step is to establish whether this is a learning and development or a behaviour change project. Or is it a bit of both?

Find the critical behaviours

Whenever clients come to me with a potential project, I ask them to try and describe the behaviours that, when scaled up, will make an impact for the organisation.

Some of you will probably be familiar with Cathy Moore's 'Action Mapping' process and this is similar – what do people need to DO? What actions must they take?

This can be quite a hard task, focusing on behaviours. You have to get uncomfortably specific. As an industry, we’re much more comfortable talking in terms of skills – “We need to build resilience” or “The business needs good leaders”.

But what does that look like?

I always ask “What do you see and hear when this is done well? What are those behaviours?” For example, great leadership behaviours that you want to see in your organisation might include:

  • Booking in regular 1-to-1s with direct reports.
  • Turning off phone and email alerts during 1-to-1s.
  • Not emailing colleagues outside of business hours.
  • Always acknowledging a direct report’s emails within a day.

And so on. Sometimes it’s a really long list!

Of course, some might argue that behaviours and skills are interlinked. Think about something like safeguarding: reporting a concern is easy – you just email a specific mailbox or tell your manager. This is a behaviour that anyone can do, it doesn’t involve special training. But knowing when to report a concern and which details to report – that is harder and requires skill.

Who can do this behaviour right now?

Start with a list of critical behaviours, then you’re ready to analyse what sort of project it is. These are behaviours that will make a big impact on the organisation if everyone does them.

To decide how to influence each of these behaviours, ask: Can anyone do this? Are they capable of doing it when asked?

Often, you find the answer is yes. Can all managers book regular 1-to-1s and can they turn off notifications during those sessions? Yes, they are all perfectly capable of doing these things. But perhaps it’s not being done. This is a behaviour change project. It requires a different approach.

On the other hand, which of these behaviours requires skill or practice? If not everyone can do this behaviour when asked, that’s a classic training need: These are your L&D projects. People will need specific knowledge, they’ll need to practice, use performance support resources, build their own capability with help from peers.

Is it a skill or a behaviour?

Click through to use our interactive flowchart to check if your need is about building skills or changing behaviours.

Download a PDF version of the flowchart here.

What changes behaviour?

Spoiler – behaviour is rarely changed by an e-learning module.

Here we can learn from other industries. The worlds of advertising and marketing are supremos at behaviour change – the art of persuasion, the psychology of decision-making.

Behavioural science is becoming more prevalent in the business world generally. The ‘BeSci’ community tells us that humans are more likely to act if the required behaviours are easy to do, attractive, socially rewarding and timely. There’s a well-known framework which goes into much more detail about this.

There are many techniques you can use – from showing others performing or modelling the required behaviours, making the behaviour fun to do, giving the behaviour kudos or incentives, or adding barriers to reduce a certain behaviour.

For example, to restrict out of hours emailing, how about having a setting in Outlook that holds on to any emails sent after 6pm and automatically send them at 8.30am the next day?

Often the environment helps to encourage a desired behaviour: someone may already have the skill to ride a bicycle, but providing cycling lanes makes them more likely to use their bike because they have a safe space to ride.

Behaviour change is sometimes about tweaking things in the environment so people don’t have to remember to change their behaviour, it happens automatically or makes it much easier for people to do.

What builds skills?

Skills development is the area where most L&D practitioners are in their comfort zone. We know that learning from peers, having clear resources, following a programme of chunked information, these things all help build an individual’s skillset. Practice is important, as is regular and timely feedback. Frankly, we’ve got this covered, but it’s good to remind us.

There are plenty of opportunities for growth, development and building skills. If you ever (used to) go to the big Learning Tech or World of Learning conferences, you’ll know what I mean. There’s a product for everything relating to skill building.

The hardest bit though is consulting with the business to work out how much is a skills gap vs a behavioural gap. This is becoming known as Performance Consulting and it’s about to get even more important in our world of L&D.

Aaaghh but it’s complicated

I know. In L&D we’ve all spent years building skills. Focusing on changing specific behaviours feels a bit uncomfortable to start with. But you’ll get used to it, I promise!

We’re fortunate at Acteon to be able to draw on a range of possible solutions for each project, whether it’s a programme of digital learning or a fun song to change a behaviour. We’ve always done lots of learning and development content – that’s what we’re known for; engaging, memorable and meaningful learning.

But more and more of our clients are seeing the possibilities of focusing on behaviour change as a way to meet business objectives. Really it’s all about solving problems together.

In 2020, we launched a new way of working with clients – running Design Thinking workshops. We started off doing them as full day sessions but then you-know-what happened and we now do half-day online ones. We get the client (L&D, subject matter experts, frontline employees) all on a video call and we work as a group to pick out the most important behaviour that will solve organisational problems. After that, together we come up with ideas for possible solutions based on the skills or behavioural gaps we’ve identified. It’s fast-paced and fun, but best of all – the solutions we’ve designed have been done so collaboratively, so we know they will work.


Chat with us about our Acteon Lab workshops.