For the last decade I’ve focused on the study of growth – individual growth, organizational growth, and my own personal growth. I studied well-being with global experts, and I published work, synthesizing a wide body of academic research on the subject. I’ve gained a lot of knowledge in a short period of time, but it’s become increasingly clear that mastering the application of this knowledge is a lifetime endeavor.
Through traditional, academic study we can only create mental representations, or maps, of well-being and the process of achieving it. Actually achieving well-being requires putting the learnings into practice every day. Using the map to successfully traverse the territory is considered “experiential learning” and it’s where actual behavior change takes place.
Studying the map and navigating the terrain are quite different. When trying to learn or teach something, most focus on studying the map rather than the experience of exploring the new ground, which is essential for successfully developing new skills and behaviors. Many learning resources provide information, but having information does not guarantee successful application. This is particularly true when the application requires the adoption of new habits and skills.
Knowledge often fails to create behavioral changes. For example, most people in the U.S. know that poor diet and nutrition can be harmful to their health. Many people know this and want to eat healthier food. However, in this case, knowledge and a desire to act differently are oftentimes not enough to change behavior.
There’s an enormous gap between knowing what to do, and internalizing and living it; this applies equally to individuals and organizations. When you know what to do but aren’t able to successfully do it consistently, you need a coach to support you through a process of experiential learning. Behavior change begins by breaking down information and knowledge (or “behaviors we should be adopting”) into actionable practices. A coach will then support an individual or group in implementing the practices, which leads to learning through trying, failing, experimenting, and eventually succeeding.
So how do you use experiential learning to train an individual or a group to adopt a new set of behaviors? Here’s a quick example of how to incorporate the benefits of learning-by-doing into training on the subject of Utilizing Strengths at Work. A non-experiential training approach might provide students with statistics about how focusing on strengths improves performance. You could give students information to review and study. OR you can create an experiential exercise:
Ask people to write a few sentences using their non-dominant hand and time the exercise. Then ask them to write the same text with the hand they normally write with. Time them again and compare the quality of the writing and the time it took to write between the two trials. It will be clear that when they use their stronger writing hand, they achieve better outcomes with less work.
The activity allows the participants to discover for themselves why strengths are important, which creates a greater impact than if someone simply told them. Without the experience of writing with their non-dominant hand as a display of strengths, their understanding will be incomplete. This experiential component brings the landscape, instead of just the maps, into the classroom.
There is an appropriate place and time for a wide variety of learning methods. Without the map to lead the way, we tend to get lost and take longer to achieve our goals. I certainly found that learning about well-being was an important step towards creating well-being in my life. But if your objective is to create lasting, positive changes in behavior, either for yourself or your team, an experiential, learning-by-doing approach is essential.
This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.