How Much Better is Your Driving?

What do driving, tying your shoes and leadership development have in common? More than you might expect. How much better are you at driving than you were five years ago? Think about it for a minute, I will wait… Embarrassing, huh? If you are typical, your driving skills will not change much between the ages of 25 and 65. We do something for 40 years and don’t get any better at it!

Do your shoes ever come untied? You look down, the laces are flopping and you have to stop and retie them. If so, you are not alone. Between one-half to two-thirds of people do not tie their shoes right. A correctly tied shoelace will not come untied as you are walking. So why are so many people spending precious time attending to errant shoe laces?

How did you learn to be a leader? Successful executives told the Center for Creative Leadership that they learned the most from experience -- especially stretch assignments, hardships and mistakes -- and that they prefer to learn this way. But executives and HR professionals say they are not satisfied with the quantity or quality of their organization’s leaders even though it is where they spend the bulk of their development dollars.


New Understanding About How We Learn

These three problems all stem from the same root cause -- the way we learn. All expertise -- from baseball to brain surgery – comes from physical changes in the structure and functions of the brain. These changes in your brain allow you to process thoughts, actions, and decisions so quickly and easily that you aren’t even aware of it – you do it on auto-pilot. Automatic processing makes performance effortless – but, skills on auto-pilot never improve. That is why you aren’t any better at driving than you were 5 years ago.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news. In the last 10 years, new research has produced an explosion of understanding on how people build skills and reach the highest levels of performance -- and, why most of us never come close to achieving the potential that is easily within our grasp. Basically, we build expertise in three sequential stages that I call -- Facts, Skills, and Wisdom. Learning is most efficient and effective when development activities match our stage of learning and are in sync with the way our brain learns.


Common Problems in Workplace Learning

What does this mean for driving, shoe tying and leadership development? These three examples highlight common problems with learning and performance improvement in the workplace.

Just like driving, performance in any endeavor will stall on auto-pilot (and eventually decline) unless you purposefully make an effort to improve.

Effective learning requires an expert teacher, not an expert doer. If you tie your shoes wrong, it is because someone failed to teach you how to do it correctly. Don’t blame your mom -- auto-pilot makes it difficult for experts to share what they know with new learners.

You learn leadership (or anything) from experience because stretch assignments and new jobs force you off auto-pilot – you must learn or fail. But learning on-the-job mixes stages 1 and 3 learning and skips stage 2 altogether. Trying to learn facts, build skills and use them at the same time is, at best, slow and inefficient. At worst, it puts skills on auto-pilot incorrectly. (If you’ve been tying your shoes wrong since you were 5 years old, what else could you be doing wrong that you don’t know about yet?)


Learn and Improve Performance Faster

Relatively minor changes to your development plans can bypass the limitations on learning and performance improvement that come from the natural process of learning.

  • Avoid a performance plateau by continuously stretching yourself just a little beyond your current level of ability. Always have one area of performance that you are working on improving.
  • Use expert teachers to help you create your development plans, provide you with basic information and show you how to practice skills before you start to use them. Ask mentors and supervisors (expert doers) for advice when you are in the final stage of learning – building wisdom with experience and reflection.
  • Sequence your development plans to work with the three stages of learning. The first stage -- learning the basic facts -- is best accomplished with classroom or formal learning; the second stage requires practice of fundamental skills (something we don’t really do at all in workplace learning); and the final stage – building wisdom and deep expertise – comes from using skills on the job and thinking about how to improve.

Most importantly -- learn how to learn. Let’s face it; you are responsible for your own development. If you understand just a little about how the brain works, you can learn faster (as much as five times faster), achieve higher, and avoid the stagnation of auto-pilot. Plus, never retie your shoes again!