In 1962, NBA hall-of-famer Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single basketball game. No one has come close since. Wilt made 28 out of 32 free-throws during that game and a career-high 61 percent that season despite having made only 50 percent of his shots during the previous year. Why the big improvement? He shot underhand, or “granny style,” which scientists have shown is a superior technique for professional basketball players.
Yet Wilt later reverted to the traditional style—and had miserably low results the remainder of his career. Why? Because “he felt like a sissy.” A handful of other NBA players who let science dictate their style have had great results, but pretty much everyone else feels like Wilt. Similarly, despite a bevy of statistics that American football teams shouldn’t punt for a fourth down (and Pulaski Academy’s tremendous success not punting), almost no football coaches will adopt the practice.
The same issue occurs with leadership. Even when we have demonstrated convincingly to someone why they should lead in a particular way and they leave a program or coaching session intending to—and hopeful about—applying the new approach, they almost always revert back to their old style (if they attempt the new way at all).
Leadership Development Without Sustainment Fails
Despite significant investments to improve development efforts, the majority of learners do not adopt desired behaviors over the long-term:
- A metanalysis of 200 leadership development programs showed that a third of programs produced no positive effect. This result is likely biased upward, given the reluctance for journals to publish null or neutral findings.
- A 2018 HBR Survey found that only 33 percent of respondents felt that they have become much more effective as managers after taking part in development programs.
- What’s worse, these statistics are likely rosier than we’d like to admit. HBR found that only 24 percent of survey respondents did any form of impact measurement, with the most popular tool being satisfaction surveys.
When it comes to behavior change, habit and environment eat know-how and desire for lunch.
The Imperative to Change the Work EnvironmentEnvironment is especially important. Studies have shown that when star performers move from one environment to another, their performance typically plummets for years, if not forever.
Our work environments—including attitudes, physical space, processes, and culture—support the way things are typically done. After a leadership development experience, an employee has to operate in the old environment, which can be tacitly and actively hostile toward their new approach. If you go on a diet but keep your kitchen full of cookie jars, you aren’t likely to succeed. When it comes to developing leaders, we largely ignore environment. More people are successful giving up smoking than changing their leadership behaviors because “no smoking” rules and societal norms tend to support that change. If we modify the environment to support the new leadership behaviors—if we replace the cookie jars with healthy snacks—we can empower leadership success and drive dramatically better results.
Other people are the most important part of our work environment. As Wilt Chamberlain experienced, it’s hard to maintain a positive behavior if the people around you don’t help sustain it. That’s a big part of why organizations need to teach everyone to lead effectively. Wilt may have become a great underhand free-thrower if the NBA had taught the fans, players, and coaches about the benefits (and maybe even created rules that favored that style).
To truly achieve leadership success, we have to change the status quo. At AchieveForum, our vision is to democratize access to the best resources so that every person can lead successfully. Organizations need resources they can tailor to their needs regardless of their ability to pay, so we’re embracing an open-source model for leadership development content by making the core components of our newest, best leadership journeys available for free and keeping that content fresh. We also will make available at no cost our groundbreaking application that drives sustained behavior change through fun, immersive experiences and environment changes to all organizations who want to create a gender balanced culture.
Skeptical? Come visit us at ATD 2019 and receive one of our new Leading in the Digital Age learning journeys, no strings attached, and sign up to receive our free Leading in a Gender-Balanced Culture application when it’s released later this year. We look forward to meeting you!