Leadership | Wondering Why Your Managers Don't Change Their Ways?

Wondering Why Your Managers Don't Change Their Ways?

One in three. That’s how many learners you can expect to actually adopt the behaviours you painstakingly teach through your leadership development programmes1. Research papers, management studies, and talent professional surveys tell us even that figure is rather hopeful.

In light of this, we spent the past 18 months investigating why employees do — and don’t — adopt the behaviours they learn in leadership development programmes. We interviewed talent professionals and students, ran experiments, reviewed the academic literation on behavioural science and neuroscience, and reflected on the leadership programmes we’ve run for clients for nearly 50 years now.

Some clear lessons have emerged, with important implications for the future of our industry.

Conventional wisdom reigns

When it comes to leadership development, the widespread approach has been to build better and better programmes. We know that we need to not only transfer knowledge about the desired behaviours, but create a deeper understanding of those target behaviours, foster a strong desire on the part of the learners to apply what they learn, and build strong leadership skills.

Skills, Knowledge, Understanding, and Desire, or SKUD for short.

To achieve that, L&D practitioners have created novel assessment, experiential learning programmes, on demand and virtual courses, micro lessons, job aids, sustainment sessions, intensive coaching, stretch experiences, and targeted email nudges. We’ve also incorporated psychology, neuroscience, and entertainment to heighten the SKUD dimension.

The fact remains. Despite a lot of innovation and creativity, leadership effectiveness is all too often underwhelming.

With research from Gartner stating that only 13% of senior executives have confidence in rising leaders at their firms2, it’s apparent that success doesn’t hinge on modality, type of learning experience, who creates the programme, or who delivers it. So why do so many people seem impervious to what are generally pretty engaging, relevant programmes?

A spotlight on the environment

Let us start by looking beyond leadership development, beyond L&D, and beyond the workplace.

Climate change. It will eventually affect each and every one of us, our children, and our grandchildren. It’s never far out of the news and sustainability is increasingly a strategic objective for businesses around the globe. Generally speaking, we ‘get it’. Let’s take the concept of recycling and work through the SKUD approach:

  • We know how to recycle (Skill)

  • We have been taught about the process of recycling (Knowledge)

  • We are informed about the implications of not recycling (Understanding)

  • We want to save our planet for future generations (Desire)

Yet our behaviour is shifting too slowly and we’re fast approaching a critical point. Why are our success rates so poor when it comes to green issues? Consider this comment from UN Environment climate change expert Niklas Hagelberg – “People in general are positive to climate change and carbon neutrality but these can be abstract concepts and remote to many people’s daily lives.”

Where we have seen a tangible change in behaviour, for example the high impact of small charges to for plastic shopping bags3, individuals were prompted to do something differently as they went about their daily lives. They were not left with a difficult choice, nor expected to remember ‘the new way’ themselves every time they went shopping. The environment around them prompted a consistent change in their behaviour.

Recognising the opportunity for change

Some environmental campaigners say the key is to remove the ‘hassle factor’ – ensure it’s easier to make the change, not harder. We would take that idea one step further. We simply can’t rely on our brains to recognise the opportunity for change. Our brains tend to focus scarce cognitive resources on things that are more uncommon, or signal a threat or risk. Saving the planet is not an imminent threat to the here and now.

It is not a question of willpower – if you don’t recognise the opportunity to use that behaviour, you’re simply not going to use it. Your brain filters out the option for change, in turn leading to old habits. Your friends, family, and co-workers indirectly and directly undermine your new abilities. It’s not that you decided not to, you just don’t see the opportunity. In the cases you do, the environment is discouraging you. It's actually remarkable that anyone changes their behaviour at all!

This is, broadly speaking, what we found in the course of our sustainment research. Simply giving someone the knowledge, skill, and desire to adopt a new leadership behaviour isn’t going to help most people. The reason? Because their work environments won’t support that behaviour any more than the average high street, packed with discount clothing stores supports our efforts to be less wasteful. Your work environment usually supports your old leadership behaviours, not the new ones.

So, what now?

It’s the curse of the diet. The challenge of the gym. The fantasy of the work-life balance. While there is a misalignment between how we want to behave, and the daily reality of our lives, any behaviour change is unlikely to stick.

Leadership behaviour change is so hard and not likely to improve without a radical change in approach. In L&D? Book an appointment to hear about our findings and our game-changing recommendations for achieving sustained leadership behaviour change. Never look at leadership development in the same way again!

1 http://www.harvardbusiness.org/sites/default/files/20853_CL_StateOfLeadership_Report_2018_May2018.pdf
2 https://hbr.org/2017/11/turning-potential-into-success-the-missing-link-in-leadership-development
3 https://think.ing.com/articles/plastic-bags-consumer-behaviour-and-the-environment/

Yes please, tell me about your sustainment research