Have you ever tried to start a new diet? You do your research, you put together a grocery list the length of a novel, you may even buy a new cookbook for inspiration. You head to the store with high hopes, stock up on all the specialty items you need to make this work, and dive right in. For the first week, you’re cooking with gas, literally and figuratively. You’re eating better, you feel great, and you’re putting all your new knowledge to work. But over time, you slip back into old patterns, buying items from your old grocery list and whipping up quick and easy meals from your past. All the research, the hundreds of dollars spent on kale and kombucha, the new recipes and behaviors you learned . . . poof—they’re replaced with old habits in seconds.
This same phenomenon is happening in the leadership development industry. Despite our best efforts, we can’t expect more than one in three learners to apply the new behaviors they’ve learned for more than a year. And while one in three is better than none out of three, the lack of success creates a huge opportunity cost for those who don’t change.
Where Is Leadership Development Coming Up Short?To start, let’s consider a few statistics around leadership development programs in the digital age:
- A 2018 HBR survey found that only 33 percent of respondents believed that they have become more effective as managers after taking part in development programs.
- Research from Gartner (formerly CEB) found that only 13 percent of senior executives have confidence in rising leaders at their firms.
- When upward of 500 executives were asked to rank their top three human-capital priorities, almost two-thirds identified leadership development as the top concern.
- Around 30 percent of U.S.-based companies admit that they have failed to fully exploit international opportunities because they lack leaders with the right capabilities.
Talent professionals and executives are aware of the troubling statistics. Although new leadership behaviors are being taught, and in turn learned by those who attend the programs, said behaviors are not being practiced once the individual re-enters the workplace.
This persistent challenge has prompted us to ask why participants aren’t practicing these behaviors when they return to their jobs. We’re providing them with skills, knowledge, understanding, and desire to change, yet they quickly revert back to their old ways. What’s going on? Research shows that one in three learners will adopt new behaviors after participating in a course, but that figure is more likely one in 10.
We’re Not Lazy . . . Our Brains AreThe root cause of the problem is that our brains form a habit around a lot of our leadership behaviors to focus its limited energy on immediately pressing activities. These habits are triggered by our work environment without even thinking about them. So you go take a course, pick up some new behaviors, understand them and why they’re important, and want to do them. But then you go back to your normal work environment and don’t even notice the opportunities to apply what you’ve learned. Your environment is triggering old habits.
So, What Now?Like with diets, to sustain the weight loss, we have to enable the adoption of new behaviors. The same theory applies if we want to sustain changes in our leadership behaviors. We have to modify our environment and our habits so that they support the behaviors we want, rather than the habits we’ve formed in the past.
So, the question is, how do we do that? Let’s talk about it.