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How People Learn
by Dr. Tony Alessandra

"The longest journey on earth begins with a single step." (Anonymous)

When people are given too much knowledge in too short a time period, panic sets in. Faced with new information, everyone needs to practice new skills to see which areas fall into place and which don't.

New knowledge is much easier to absorb when a clear picture of a goal is presented. Dr. John Lee, a leading management expert, demonstrates this in his workshops by giving groups of participants a 70-piece puzzle to assemble. One group views a picture of the completed puzzle; the other groups put theirs together without knowing what the finished product will look like. Consistently, the group with the picture finishes first. Why? They already know their goal. They have the advantage of possessing a blueprint for success which they tackle one bite-sized piece at a time.

Can you remember when you first learned how to drive a car? Before you learned how, you were in the "ignorance" stage. You did not know how to drive the car and you didn't even know why you didn't know how to drive it. When you first went out with an instructor to learn how to drive you arrived at the second phase: awareness. You still couldn't drive, but because of your new awareness of the automobile and its parts, you were consciously aware of why you couldn't. At this point, the "awareness" stage, you at least realized what you had to do to acquire the competency to drive. You may have felt overwhelmed by the tasks before you, too, but when these tasks were broken down one by one, they weren't so awesome after all. They became attainable. Step by step, familiarity replaced fear.

Similarly, in Phase 2, your people need to feel the exhilaration of small successes interspersed with the inevitable mistakes that they must make while acquiring new concepts and skills.... one step at a time. How can a manager move an employee from Phase 1 to Phase 2? Books, cassettes, videotapes, films, weekly meetings, speeches, seminars, workshops and other learning aids can ease employees into awareness. Then, of course, the managers need to ensure that the newly found awareness (input) sticks.

With some additional practice and guidance, you were able to become competent in driving the car through recognition of what you had to do. However, you had to be consciously aware of what you were doing with all of the mechanical aspects of the car as well as with your body. You had to be consciously aware of turning on your blinker signals well before you executed a turn. You had to remember to monitor the traffic behind you in your rearview mirror. You kept both hands on the wheel and noted your carís position relative to the centerline road divider. You were consciously aware of all of these things as you competently drove. This third phase is the hardest stage - the one in which your people may want to give up. This is the "practice" stage. Your employees will make mistakes here. People tend to feel uncomfortable when they goof, but this is an integral part of Phase 3. Human beings experience stress when they implement new behaviors, especially when they perform imperfectly. As their manager, you must realize that they'll want to revert to old, more comfortable behaviors, even if those behaviors are less productive.

As their manager, you can play a crucial role by helping your team over the rough spots. It's all right for them to make mistakes. In fact, it's NECESSARY so they improve through practice, practice and more practice. Encourage them over these hurdles, and you and they will reap the harvest of your perseverance. Your job as manager is to assist them by again following up their new knowledge with concrete skill development. This can take various forms, according to the needs and wants of the group. Some examples for follow-through can be role playing; joint sales calls; exposure to repetitive messages, such as listening to instructional tapes en route to work; informal workshops to encourage skill development; or coaching and counseling the employee to assist in the growth process.

Returning to our car analogy, think of the last time that you drove. Were you consciously aware of all of the actions that we just mentioned above? Of course not! Most of us, after driving awhile, progress to a level of "habitual performance." This is the level where we can do something well and don't have to think about the steps. They come "naturally" because they've been so well practiced that they've shifted to automatic pilot. This final stage, then, is when practice results in assimilation and habit. Our example holds true for your use of professional training through the first three relatively uncomfortable processes of ignorance, awareness, and practice in order to get to the blueprint for success - the highest level of "habitual performance." Then they can use the training techniques naturally and effectively. If you can get your people to that level, you should see an increase in their productivity. However, you and your staff must pay a price to get to this level of competence: repetition and more repetition.

When you were learning to drive the car, you acquired your competency through practice. The same holds true for work skills. New skills will probably require a change of behavior from your team's present method of working. If this is the case, expect to see an initial decrease in productivity. This is a common occurrence in behavioral change. However, as they approach the automatic level of working through persistence and practice, their productivity will increase beyond its previous level and reach a new and higher plateau.

This four-phase model for success can help you and your people break out of the rut most of us dig for ourselves. By experiencing success and encouragement at each level, change can be exciting instead of intimidating. The bottom line is this: skills and attitudes will both improve by taking one step at a time with you, as manager and trainer, implementing support systems and skill development sessions along the way.Copyright Dr. Tony Alessandra. All Rights Reserved.

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