Illusions of Competence in Learning | How to Fix Your United Airlines Problem

This is a follow up to my blog post about United Airlines’ mishandling of a seated passenger that resulted in media backlash and an out of court financial settlement.

In the video, associated with my blog post, I describe three separate cohorts including law enforcement, United customer service agents, and leadership (CEO, Oscar Munoz), who were all trained professionals. In all three situations, each professional performed in a way that was counter to their formal training. Most apparent was Oscar Munoz who had recently won an award from PRWeek as the “Communicator of Year” yet couldn’t find the words to empathetically respond to horrendous passenger treatment. Instead, he referred to the forcible removal of David Dao and others as being “re-accommodated!”

How can actual performance on the job differ so much from expectations set in formal training? 

The same question could be asked for any job description where “hiring practices” and “leadership” often get the blame for sagging results. Wherever the blame game leads organizations, most of the time the focus is on the wrong performance element.

Let’s take a step back and look at why employees perform the way they do in the first place.

Obviously, there are multiple factors that affect performance, including previous experience, personal character and capacity, corporate culture, traditional corporate training, etc. Most of these factors are beyond the scope of this blog post, so I’m going to focus on what I, and many psychologists consider to be the greatest influence on behavior: Environment.


Stanford PHD and Cornell consumer behaviorist, Brian Wansink wrote in his book Mindless Eating that environmental factors have a greater influence on behavior than even personal taste.  He highlighted an experiment where movie goers were given 14-day old stale popcorn, yet still ate 33.6% more than movie goers who were given medium sized buckets. Just the size of the bucket had that great an influence. Of course people were in denial that portion size versus their preference, made them over eat.

In other words, we may act contrary to what we like or know best when there are environmental influences that have an impact on our behavior. That lines up precisely with the situation at United.

We are also seeing this play out in the political arena on a mass scale. Regardless of personal beliefs, we are seeing people follow the environmental influence of party lines even when actions of the party are entirely foreign to their own beliefs. The greater the division between the two parties, the greater the influence becomes to follow the line you subscribe to; it’s a bigger bucket.

There are countless examples of environmental influences creating mass behavioral changes including the dramatic reduction in crime rates in New York City in the 90’s. Violent crime dropped by more than 56% compared to only about 28% for the nation as a whole. There were two huge environmental reasons that influenced positive behavior; one was The Broken Window Theory that suggests an improvement in our surroundings won’t support negative behaviors and the other was a big improvement in the economy.

What if your business unit could achieve those kinds of results in a short period of time?

Google, through Project Aristotle, came to similar conclusions about the power of environmental influences when they conducted their own exhaustive, multi-year study to uncover the attributes of the “perfect team”.

Google wanted to know what made one team vastly more productive than another.

They spent millions of dollars and measured nearly every aspect of employees’ lives; over a hundred groups were analyzed for over a year. The results baffled most everyone yet made complete sense. The most productive teams weren’t the result of combining the most qualified employees (as executives believed) but rather the result of an environment that promoted the “safe” exchange of ideas. Better described as psychological safety or “a group culture that Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking” as noted by Charles Duhigg, Author of The Power of Habit. 

In the United situation, and with the entire airline industry, there is a widely held belief that certain power driven by a culture of security as a result of the attacks of 9/11 is their number one concern and the driving force behind on the job performance. When service exceptions occur, airline employees don’t default to “the customer is always right” like they were trained but rather, “we are in control and you do as we say”.  In other words, airline employees are driven by the cultural aspects of the industry to put the needs of the whole over the needs of the individual. And that completely contradicts a “service” mentality.

It’s an example of what Dr. Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering and author of describes as the illusion of competence in learning. We think that because we trained people effectively using traditional methods, that they will perform to those standards even when environmental influences like company culture and inevitable job stresses are a factor. Organizations have a false sense of security and although some are becoming more aware of the gap between traditional training and on the job performance, few have any idea how to bridge that gap.

This highlights growing challenges in the Learning and Development industry where CEOs are more reluctant to make investments because of a lack of direct correlation to business results. LinkedIn recently did a study and found that “90% of business leaders believe that learning and design programs are key to closing skill gaps. Yet only 8% of CEO’s in the report said they saw the business impact of L&D programs and even fewer (just 4%) saw a clear ROI.”

That will put an even greater emphasis on business unit leaders vs. L&D to come up with solutions that impact organizational performance.

The impact of poor quota attainment and sales rep attrition is a clear example of this playing out in almost every corporate climate. The average tenure of a sales rep is just 19 months with 47% of companies stating that it takes 10 months for them to ramp up. If sales leaders learned from Google, they might understand that the quality of their hire is less of a factor than they originally ascertained. Sales teams are the opposite of a “productive team” by Harvard Business School standards. Instead of creating a safe environment to exchange ideas and innovate, there is a win at all cost culture that perpetuates the revolving door. The good news is that there has been a fundamental shift away from practices like Top Grading because ultimately good organizations understand that human capital is not so expendable and performance can be impacted positively.

But what can be done? How does corporate America evolve when technology and new innovations make it more and more difficult to keep up? How do we bridge the gap between traditional training and on the job performance?

Dr. Barbara Oakley actually failed her way through formal high school math and science classes but is now an engineering professor. Think of her as your failing employee or the one that will fail when put under pressure from quota or unruly customer demands. Dr. Oakley describes how you can study all day long, but you will just be spinning your wheels if you don’t apply appropriate techniques.

According to the NeuroLeadership Journal:

“….all too often the way we learn is based on flawed models built around one big event.” 

In other words, binge learning doesn’t work any more effectively than binge eating yet every company continues using the same tired strategies.

Dr. Oakley literally re-tooled her brain and taught herself how to learn. “Learning to learn is the most powerful skill you can possess.” How many times as a supervisor or leader in your company have thought to yourself, “Man, I wish I could just re-tool that employee”?

Barbara researched countless experts in Learning and Development before applying the principles that would bridge her own performance gap. Until recently the right delivery technology has not existed to enable organizations to carry out the type of learning that Dr. Oakley prescribes that supports the latest in Neuroscience research. What is important to understand though is that not only did Dr. Oakley learn new facts, but she bridged the gap between data and performance. In times of stress she will be able to recall and apply skills that have been reinforced strongly enough to overcome environmental influences.

To be competitive, companies must go beyond traditional training where 80% of content is forgotten within 10-20 days.

In “The Science of Making Learning Stick, An Update to the AGES. Model,” the authors describe “how it is possible to transform learning programs into events through which people do retain their knowledge and use it”.

The problem at United, and most organizations for that matter, is that the only standard to follow for exceptions are cultural/environmental influences. That is leaving a lot up to chance. So how, as a company, do you train people on your core values that include things like, “the customer is always right” or “The Friendly Skies”, and get that training to show up when an exception occurs? One way to ensure this is through the AGES model.

I want to conclude this post by bringing attention to the 70-20-10 model of Learning which attributes 10% of learning to formal training and the rest to environmental influences of one form or another.  I will explore both models more in depth in another article. This research is not without its detractors, but it does carry a lot of support from the examples I gave earlier. Going beyond traditional training means you first need to gain an awareness that 90% of training, or more (likely), is out of the control of existing Learning and Development initiatives and relatively ineffective.

In my next blog post entitled, Overcoming the Illusions of Competence in Learning, I will explore the 70-20-10 model and the AGES model and specifically how to create the kind of environmental influences and culture that will have a positive impact on your business.

Please contact me at if you would like to discuss these concepts.


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