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Increase your personal effectiveness through interpersonal awareness and "flex to the person you are working with" skills.

What is the "Extinction Effect"?
How Does It Apply to Professional Development Activities?


The Problem

Organizations spend money on interpersonal skills training. The program goes well and receives "rave" reviews. The participants come back to the job. Several weeks later, there is no obvious sign of changes in their behavior. They do not exhibit the new skills they have learned. It is as if their new learning has become "extinct".

This issue is examined through answering 3 questions. (Click on each one to go directly there on this web page.)

  1. What is the Underlying Cause of the Extinction Effect?
  2. How can the Extinction Effect be avoided?

What is the Underlying Cause of the Extinction Effect?  

How do "smart habits, i.e. effective repetitive interlocked patterns of behavior" lead to the "extinction effect?

interpersonal skills do not occur in a vacuum. The very word "interpersonal" indicates that interpersonal skill is about interacting with others.

As organizational psychologists are shown, people in the workplace interact in "repetitive interlocked patterns of behavior". That is, individuals develop smart habits, or patterns of behavior, that allow them to get work done efficiently when interacting with others.

Take a simple example. A client waits in line to deal with a bank teller. When the client reaches the teller's wicket, the client presents the teller with a deposit slip. Based on the deposit slip, the teller knows that the client wants to make a deposit. The teller engages the client in social chitchat while using a computer terminal access to client's account and make the necessary entries. The teller provides the client with printed piece of paper verifying the deposit.

With minor variations, this "interlocked pattern of behavior" is repeated an uncountable number of times each business day in the world's bank offices. Each person knows how the other person will behave, and therefore they can conclude their business in a reasonably efficient and pleasant manner. their individual behavior patterns are predictable. Their joint behavior patterns are "interlocked". This pattern is repeated over and over.

Such "repetitive interlocked patterns of behavior" our essential to achieving results in the workplace. At varying degrees of complexity and localness, they are the essence of workplace behavior. But their very effectiveness brings with it a price. Because they work so well for people, people resist change.

Repetitive patterns of behavior lead to smart habits. smart habits allow people to only devote part of their conscious attention to what they are doing. In the example above, our bank teller and client can engage in necessary and pleasing social interaction while the work that needs to be accomplished is being carried out. Every organization encourages the development of such smart habits in its workers. We all know that smart habits are essential to getting a new day will come, even though we don't very often consciously identified the fact that we are carrying out a piece of behavior "patterned" by a smart habit that we have learned.


People like smart habits. They make work easier. They may take effort to acquire, but once learned, they're hard to give up.

Change requires that people give up old smart habits and learn new ones. That takes effort. People must be motivated to this.

When the smart habits have to do with a piece of work that an individual is doing alone, the only person who needs to be motivated to make this change is the individual. (This is why "technical skills training, which often is focused on what the personal does personally, often "sticks".) However when smart habits involve two or more people, that is, when they involve "repetitive patterns of interlocked behavior", all of the individuals who participate in the shared smart habit must be motivated to change.

Invariably new interpersonal skills are implemented in work environments where the "learner" achieves results through shared smart habits. When learners come back from a professional development program, and change their personal behavior, they have an impact on the other people who participate in the smart habits by which work gets done in that environment. Effectively the learner's behavior is communicating the following message.

"I no longer want to work in the way that we used to work together, I want to work in a new way. Because this new way is better, you should also change your behavior."

The problem is that the other people with whom the "learner" is engaging are not likely to have gone on the same professional development program. When they experience learner's new behavior, they feel some degree of frustration. After all, the shared habit - the way they used to interact with this person - worked up to now. They have not had the opportunity to experience why the new pattern may be more effective. So they tend to respond in the old way. They stick to the smart habit "as it is" as far as they are concerned.

The learner experiences this as an indication of the fact that the new behavior is not working well. There is a good chance that they will also revert to the old way of doing after several repeated attempts to implement new behavior. In this way, the new behavior pattern becomes "extinct".


How can the Extinction Effect be avoided?

There are 4 classical ways to do this, especially in the arena of interpersonal behavior.

  1. Train all of the people in a work group on the new interpersonal behaviors at the same time. This way. they all have an opportunity to understand the benefits of the new patterns, and can work together to develop new effective "repetitive patterns of interlocked behavior" or smart habits.

  2. Have the learner move to a new work group. When individuals first join a group of workers, they have to go through a period of time in which they learn the smart habits that make up the collective work knowledge of that group. In his time, they also gives them an opportunity to influence those patterns and reshape them to some extent. When the introduction of the new individuals is properly "couched", the individuals in the work group are motivated to learn from the learner. As a result, the existing stock of smart habits in the work group changes to take into account the more effective ways in which the new member does things.

  3. Put the learner in a power position with respect to the other members of the work group. When the individual with the new interpersonal skills has the ability to positively or negatively reward the other members of the work group, they are more likely to be motivated to go through the period in which they modify old and learn new smart habits.

  4. Change out enough members of the work group, or alter the organizational context in which the work group exists, so that it's clear that new smart habits must be developed in order for the group to collectively survive or be rewarded for their work efforts.

Organizations making investments in interpersonal skill training need to work through the implications of what it takes to avoid the "extinction effect" if they wish to see a return on their investment.



Interacting with Others / Gathering and Using Information /  Making Decisions / Structuring Personal Activity
 Development Styles /  Relating Styles / The GPS Profile / The Managing Others Profile

Our Core Adult Learning Frameworks:
Professional Development and the Skill Extinction Effect
Our Design Principles
The Four Levels of Learning


Talent leverages everything,
Interpersonal talent (soft skills): the key to successful team work.

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