Research investigating leadership transitions is littered with examples of how ‘high potentials’ with outstanding records of achievement derail as they are unable or unwilling to adapt.1 Although opportunities for skills development can help mitigate this risk, such opportunities all too often neglect the very first stage of learning: unlearning.
As managers and leaders transition, they need to unlearn behaviours that may have brought them success in the past, so that they can begin to learn those that facilitate future performance. For example, a focus on high solo performance needs to be unlearned and translated into an ability to focus on achieving through others. Equally, core tactical behaviours need to be unlearned and replaced with strategic behaviours that bring success at higher levels.
The value of unlearning lies not only within facilitating leadership transitions. It’s often the case that employees in the same role need to continuously adapt to perform despite continuous change. In fact, overall performance and innovation of both individuals and organisations is likely to improve through an increased ability to unlearn outdated knowledge and routines.
However, as one adage warns, ‘old habits die hard’. Our experience and extensive research has found this to be true, highlighting how habits can continue to guide behaviour even after more beneficial behaviours have been learned.2
- De Meuse, K.P., Dai, G., & Hallenbeck, G.S. (2010). Learning agility: A construct whose time has come. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62, 2, 119-130.
- López, J. C. (2004). Old habits die hard. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5(2), 82-82.