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Startup Stock Photos

Transferring as much knowledge as possible during training can feel like the right thing to do, especially during onboarding, when an employee is brand new to your organization and has so much to learn.

However, without a concurrent focus on behavior change, this knowledge will quickly go the way of the dodo. The forgetting curve is real, folks.

If a company does not focus as much or more on changing behaviors as it does on developing knowledge, its training dollars will go to waste.

How do you shift your focus to behavior modification? First, you have to be willing to put in the time. Changing behavior is a more lengthy process than transferring knowledge, but it is worth it in the long run.

In addition to devoting sufficient time, you need to employ the right tools. But what are the right tools?

Behavior Modification Tools

It is important to give new hires a clear idea of what to expect over the course of their training period. This not only prepares them for what they will learn, but it also starts the relationship out with a healthy level of transparency.

Breaking training up into increments over a period of months can also be helpful. This slower approach allows managers more time to observe new hires’ behavior and issues that are identified early on during a safe period are more easily corrected.

Providing opportunities for new hires to apply knowledge from training as soon as possible is another tool for supporting behavior change. If eighty percent of learning happens during application, it would serve any company well to implement application activities as part of training and as follow-ups to training. The sooner employees begin their work, too, the sooner you can identify which of their behaviors need to be changed.

Management support, mentorship, and team cooperation are essential because they provide feedback loops embedded in human relationships. When new hires have a person or team to go to with questions, they will consistently be reminded of what they learned during training. Likewise, with these relationships in place, management and mentors will have more success in communicating with employees when behavior modifications become necessary.

A study involving a U.S. government program from World War II reveals some important behavior-modification tools. The goal of this program was to convince American homemakers to include sweetbreads in the meals they prepared for their families (sweetbreads being a euphemism for all of the things we tend to leave out of meat—heart, tongue, throat, etc.). You can imagine it must have been a tough sell. You won’t regret reading about the details, but here I’ll just point out the three main behavior-modification tools uncovered in this study: providing incentives, overcoming the obstacles to change, and allowing trainees to take part in discussions about the behavior change (i.e., trainees should be participants in training, not mere recipients).


Incentives can be extrinsic, including money or prizes, or intrinsic, which are a little trickier. To offer an effective intrinsic reward, you need to find out what really motivates the trainees. In the sweetbreads example, the intrinsic reward for these women was that they felt they were doing their patriotic duty. If they ate the meat castoffs here at home, the soldiers overseas would have more to eat.

Perhaps an important part of employee onboarding could be finding out what incentives will work for these particular new hires. What do they value? What will you be able to reward them with in exchange for the behavior modifications you require?

Overcoming Obstacles

Why is your team resisting a particular change? You need to learn the actual reasons and target those points of resistance. Finding out such information is facilitated by a mentorship structure that begins early on. Relationships of trust will not only help uncover the obstacles but also help to specify the unique solutions to overcoming those obstacles.


The sweetbreads study suggests that when participants take part in behavior discussions rather than just sitting through a lecture, they are five times more likely to change their behavior. Part of this may be that adults like to be in charge of their own learning, but this kind of discussion may also serve as a public commitment to change. This can serve as a powerful incentive.

A strong mentorship program and teamwork mentality can be invaluable to such discussions. These human connections encourage give-and-take discussion above one-sided teaching.


Focusing on behavior modification rather than just knowledge development takes time. But the reality is that employees typically take about eight months to feel comfortable in a position. Use that time wisely by implementing tools that will expedite behavior modification down the road. Use mentorship and other relationship structures to find out what motivates your employees and to facilitate training retention.