Training: Make Change Stick with Behaviour Modelling

Behaviour modelling training

Key Points:

  • Behaviour modelling training (BMT) is a popular training intervention which focuses on changing behaviours on the job.
  • BMT improves trainees’ knowledge, skills, and desired actions on the job 
  • You can design BMT to work even better, for example by describing both the “what” and the “why” of the new behaviors trainees learn

Sarah is sitting in a training session. “I’ll never use this, if I even remember it when I get back to my desk,” she thought. The group had been quiet for two hours while the trainer lectured, only stopping for ten minutes to get more coffee.

John has his eyes closed. He is imagining a tough conversation where he gives constructive feedback to a team member. Opening his eyes, John feels better about addressing issues with his team. The trainer asks for volunteers to act out their constructive feedback, and John’s tablemate, Marie, jumps up to volunteer.


We use training to perform better at work. But when our training isn’t focused on building new work habits or changing our behaviour, training won’t last. If we learn something and don’t use it, we forget most of the content in a few days. To design for lasting behaviour change, we need training that moves from the classroom to the boardroom and beyond. At ScienceForWork, we explored what training transfer is and who transfers what they learn on the job. But how can managers and training professionals design training that sticks? Behaviour modelling training can help us do what we always wanted: build new job habits.

What is Behaviour Modelling Training?

Behaviour modelling training (BMT) is a popular training method focused on changing job behaviour. BMT’s key elements are: 

  1. Trainers describe specific actions
  2. They show trainees how to use them
  3. Trainers make time for practice
  4. They support trainees with feedback and encouragement

Paul Taylor, Darlene Ruff-Eft, and Daniel Chan looked at the published research papers on BMT and found 117 studies with over 4,200 total participants. Most studies were in workplaces, which means the training context is more similar to your organization than student volunteers in a laboratory. The researchers explored if BMT helped trainees change their knowledge, skills, job behaviour, and work performance.

Behaviour modelling can help build skills and change behaviour

BMT helped trainees learn new knowledge and skills; though BMT had a positive impact in most research studies, there were some differences between studies we will cover below. This training style can help employees change their behaviours on the job and can improve their work performance. However, BMT had a smaller impact on job behaviour and performance than on knowledge and skill building. As so many other factors impact our behaviours and our work success, it’s not surprising that BMT has a small effect on actions and results.

Now that we know BMT can work, what topics has it worked for? Behaviour modelling works better for technology skills than social skills, so consider BMT when designing your next tech-related training. Social skills might be more complex and different in each situation, so trainees might need to add more on-the-job training to build new social skills and habits. 

Manager training using behaviour modelling helped to develop skills, but BMT had a harder time shifting bosses’ behaviour. BMT trainees showed more behaviour change with teamwork training, meaning that BMT can change job behaviours for teamwork more easily than for managing.

Maximize BMT with the following design elements

Some design elements could make BMT be more effective for building new skills or changing employees’ behavior. To improve trainees’ chance to successfully learn new skills, you can:

  • Give trainees the points to learn as rule codes: Rule codes are phrases about what to do and why. For example, a rule code for interpersonal skills could be “Listen and respond with empathy to reduce defensiveness”. These are better than short descriptions of the behaviour, such as “listen empathetically”
  • Encourage trainees to practice in their head before acting out the new skills: Mental practice, or imagining the behaviour in your head, also helps trainees learn skills
  • Spend more time on practice: Building new habits takes time, so build in more practice in your training to give feedback and support

To improve the chance that trainees’ new skills will change behaviour, you can:

  • Show examples of good and bad behaviours: For example, a good behaviour for active listening might be nodding and making eye contact, and a bad behaviour might be looking at the floor and seeming disinterested
  • Encourage trainees to make their own example situations: For example, trainees could write scenarios where they can use active listening: from team meetings to customer service contexts
  • Build a supportive work environment for transferring skills. Designing a supportive work environment involves helping trainees set goals, training the employees’ managers, and building rewards and recognition programs to make habits stick

Behaviour modelling training

Takeaways for your practice

BMT involves trainers modelling behaviour and trainees practicing it. It can build skills, change behaviour, and improve work performance. Here’s how to use BMT in your next training session:

  • You can use BMT by showing trainees the actions they should perform. For example, a high performing coworker can show trainees what success looks like in their work
  • Encourage mental practice by role-playing both sides of a situation. Have them reflect on what could go wrong and how to avoid it
  • Set up a buddy system where coworkers check in on trainees’ progress on their new habits. Buddies can celebrate their colleague’s achievements with their team


Reference

Taylor, P. J., Russ-Eft, D. F., & Chan, D. W. (2005). A meta-analytic review of behavior modeling training. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(4), 692-709.

Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the strength and quality of the study we used to inform this Evidence Summary. We found that the study design – a meta-analysis of controlled or pre-post studies – is moderately appropriate to show a causal relationship. Therefore, we can conclude that it is likely behaviour modelling training that improves skills and behaviour on the job.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.


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