Linking to the Past Secures a Space in Long Term Memory
Starting as early as pre-learning or “pre-work” assignments, help participants reduce the insecurity that comes from looking up the steep side of a learning curve by providing them with opportunities to anchor their understanding to past knowledge or experiences.
Here’s how it works.
Remember the days when offices were full of filing cabinets? Good. Now, think of the adult learner’s brain like a room full of those gray behemoths. Instead of asking learners to label a new file folder and find room in already overcrowded drawers for the new information in the new file, it’s much easier for them if you give them the opportunity to staple the new information to materials already contained in an existing folder. Essentially, you’re asking them to “hook” the new information resident in short term memory to some piece of information already in their long-term memory.
For example, a pre-work or in session assignment for a coaching course could be for participants to recall a coaching experience that went well and one that did not go as well—critically assessing the difference between the two. Then, present the new coaching behavior or model tying key points to elements from their personal stories. Now, the new approach is “attached” to the past experiences and filed away with them in the person’s long term memory.
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Linking to the Past Secures a Space in Long Term Memory
Many organizations today have Talent Management functions staffed with human resource professionals diligently trying
to attract, train, and retain “talent” (the newish word for those paid to do a job. You know, employees.) An important mandate for these Talent Management groups is “talent development”; growing the skills, knowledge, and capabilities of the talent. Implicit in the term “talent development” is the notion that the “talent” will change their behavior in order to improve their performance levels ideally toward the achievement of organizational objectives. Netting it out, this means inside of organizations there’s a department of employees expected to convince other employees to make serious changes in their lives.
Have you ever tried to break an old habit or start a new one? It’s not an easy thing to do. Now, imagine trying to get someone else to break a habit, adopt a new habit, learn a new skill, use a new software program, or do a task differently than they have for the last umpteen years. That’s the challenge faced by talent developers (otherwise known as corporate learning teams, capability developers, trainers, facilitators, instructional designers, etc.).
This brings us to two essential questions:
1. Why is change so difficult?
2. How can we influence others to change their behavior?
The Trouble with Change
According to David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz, breakthroughs in neuroscience prove out what most of us who have tried to change our behaviors already know. Change is painful. It is actually physiologically painful. In their Strategy + Business article titled “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” Rock and Schwartz explain, “Trying to change any hardwired habit requires a lot of effort, in the form of attention. This often leads to a feeling that many people find uncomfortable. So they do what they can to avoid change.”
Another reason change is difficult is a perceived difference between expectation and actuality triggers activity in the parts of the brain that cause people to react more emotionally and impulsively.
“Try to change another person’s behavior, even with the best possible justification, and he or she will experience discomfort. The brain sends out powerful messages that something is wrong, and the capacity for higher thought is decreased. Change itself thus amplifies stress and discomfort…” –Rock & Schwartz
Have you ever tried to drive on a heavily rutted dirt road? You know the kind where deep tire tracks forged in mud are solidified hard as concrete when the ground dries? Once your tires drop into the ruts; it’s almost impossible to pull them out to drive on smoother parts of the road. Our minds work the same way.
We develop schemata or patterns of thoughts and behaviors for our activities. These patterns make us efficient. When was the last time you had to think about brushing your teeth? You were taught step by step; but as time went on, you grouped those steps into a schema or routine. Now, it’s not something you think about step by step but rather as a single task accomplished almost exactly the same way each time.
Schemata are the ruts in the roads of our minds. Changing our behaviors means fighting to pull our mental wheels out of the deep grooves to which we’ve grown accustom. Even when we get the tires onto flat ground, we still feel uncomfortable and anxious. The discomfort does not abate until we’ve worn in a new set of ruts; built a new schema.
Talent Managers and other organizational leaders should recognize and never underestimate the power of the pain of change. Employees’ perception of the required change and the physiological reactions they experience will greatly impact the outcome.
The probability is high that a leader will be less effective than their boss. There are exceptions to this rule, but the trend is very clear.
In a study of 5,285 leaders from 5 different organizations, we examined the effectiveness of leaders at different levels of the organization. The measure of leadership effectiveness was derived from our research on Extraordinary Leaders. In that research we identified 16 competencies that best explained the differences between poor, good and great leaders. 49 items are used to measure the 16 competencies where assessments are completed by a leader’s manager, peers, direct reports and others. Results from each organization were examined and the graph below shows the average difference by level.
When we look at the results, leaders at the top of an organization tend to be rated as more effective than their direct reports and their direct reports tend to be rated as more effective than their direct reports.
Leadership Impacts Outcomes
In extensive studies we have demonstrated the clear connection between the effectiveness of a leader and a variety of organizational outcomes. Great leaders create more profit, higher customer satisfaction, high levels of engagement in their employees, lower turnover and substantially more highly committed employees.
While talking with a group of leaders recently, the question was asked, “How many great leaders do you need in order for an organization to be successful?” One of the leaders commented, “At least one!” While it’s true that one is much better than none, our data clearly shows that the influence of a leader is significantly diminished from one level of the organization to the next. In fact, the influence of a person’s direct manager will always overpower the effectiveness of another leader in the organization. The correct answer to “How many great leaders are needed,” is thatthey all need to be effective. Poor leadership at any level of the organization will have a very negative impact.
In many organizations, there is an assumption that the top management group does not need much development. While it is true that senior leaders tend to be more effective, executive leaders in our study ranged from the 68th percentile (a little above average) to the 93rd percentile (extraordinary). Thus, not all top management is at the top of leadership effectiveness.
Between each tier of management, a leadership effectiveness “gap” exists. The higher tier of management usually has a higher level of leadership effectiveness. The average gap is 14.5 percentile points. Using that as an average metric, if an organization wanted leaders in the 4th tier down to be at the 50th percentile (just average) the top level of leaders would need to be at the 94thpercentile in terms of the average leadership effectiveness. Keep in mind that these leaders establish the height of the ceiling. If their average effectiveness is at the 68th percentile then the next level will be on average 14.5 percentile points lower.
Top management sets the example for the rest of the organization. In the organizations we have studied, those who have the best leaders always have top management groups fully engaged and participating in leadership development programs. Those with lower levels of leadership effectiveness assume that the top leaders are “good enough.”
Reducing the Gap
When looking at the differences between levels, not every gap was large. Some organizations only had gaps of 3 to 5 percentile points. This small gap created a dramatic shift upward in the effectiveness of leaders. It became apparent that the small gap was a function of several issues.
The first issue was selecting the right people as leaders. When filling various job positions, organizations that analyzed how, rather than what, results were achieved selected more effective leaders. These talent management processes also emphasized a clear set of desirable leadership competencies and created a common language around those competencies.
Second, the top manager of the organization believed that a significant part of the job was the development of their direct reports. They felt it was their responsibility and not a Training or HR responsibility. Because of this belief, feedback was frequent; training was welcomed and encouraged.
Third, the direct reports of the senior leader felt the same way about their direct reports. In the organization there was a strong emphasis on development of every employee.
Fourth, the bar for effective leadership was set high. The expectation was the leaders needed to be great and not just good.
Cup Half Full or Half Empty
There are two ways to look at this research. The “half empty” view is that leaders are typically less effective than their bosses. This view focuses on the tendency of leaders to hold people back from realizing their potential. The “half full” view is that the more effective a person is as a leader the more effective their direct reports will be. There is a very positive message from this that leaders can pull up the effectiveness of others in the organization. A good example has a very positive effect in any organization. If you desire great leadership in your organization, then be committed to set your own bar high and be willing to look for ways to improve. The quickest and easiest path to improvement comes from getting focused feedback and then looking for opportunities to build on existing strengths.
Post Written by Joe Folkman
Joe Folkman is the co-founder and President of Zenger Folkman, a leadership development firm focused on building strengths of individuals, teams, and organizations. Joe is a co-author of the recent Harvard Business Review article “Making Yourself Indispensable.” To learn more leadership tips from Joe, subscribe to his leadership blog or follow him on Twitter: @zengerfolkman.