I've asked hundreds of CLOs what percentage of people make a sustained effort to change their behavior after a typical learning experience. The most optimistic say 20 percent, but many suggest much less. Interestingly, it’s not the usual lack of time or manager support that causes this enormous failure rate, it’s each individual’s habits.
Learning transfer requires people to engage with what’s new, internalize their discoveries, seek opportunities for application and then successfully use their insights. It requires them to step away from automatic, learned habits and try something new. This requires two distinct states of mind.
Our attention is always in one of two places: we’re either absorbed in our internal chatter or concentrating on what’s going on around us. While we can switch between these two, most of us have a preference.
An internal focus is helpful when we’re making a difficult decision or puzzling over a course of action. For example, we might use an internal focus to decide the best negotiating tactic to use with a supplier. This inner voice becomes harmful when it veers into critical self-commentary — “My pitch is weak, they’ll find holes in our proposal.” The inner critic knocks our confidence and distracts us from our goal.
Focusing externally is helpful when we’re mastering a task. In this state we’re absorbed in our environment. An external focus becomes harmful if we slip from “in the zone” to autopilot, reverting to habitual behaviors and simply going through the motions.
Whatever we’re doing, we’re using one of these four states of mind: thinking, critical, engaged or autopilot. Our challenge is to spend as much time as possible in the helpful states, swapping between thinking and engaged, depending on what we want to achieve.
The first step is recognizing which state we’re in. Too often we mistake being in a critical state of mind for reflection. The thinking state is about weighing options, deciding the best approach and using experiences to become more effective. To move from critical to thinking, we must learn to distinguish between the facts and the assumptions we’re making. Then we can evaluate objectively.
To capitalize on the thinking state, we need time for reflection. In a 10-year study of managers in a dozen large corporations, the 10 percent who took the time to reflect on their daily activities were more able to meet their goals, had better engaged teams and felt more rejuvenated. It’s up to leaders to create time for reflection.
Moving to a state of engaged immersion is a tricky shift, because it requires us to switch off autopilot without becoming distracted by internal dialogue. But there are simple things we can do.
Scan the environment for something new or unusual. It forces you to focus on the present. We should also become aware of the mental shortcuts that force us into habitual patterns. While helpful for mundane tasks like inputting data or folding laundry, these shortcuts become dysfunctional in situations that require us to think creatively. To avoid the familiarity trap — in which we use our experiences to fill in the gaps, often incorrectly — we need to evaluate each situation from a fresh perspective, even if it seems familiar.
To get engaged without being distracted by critical inner noise, we can practice recognizing the vital components of a situation. The trick is don’t allow the critical noise to start: “She’s folded her arms; she’s losing interest.” Observe what’s happening without evaluation.
Engagement comes when the task balances challenge and skill. Too easy and we revert to autopilot; too challenging and we become anxious and critical. When the challenge stretches our skill to its maximum capacity, we’re most likely to achieve our full potential. This is why setting goals that stretch but don’t strain is key to maximize performance and engagement.
As we practice and perfect shifting from analytical thinking to engaged action and back to active reflection, decisions become clearer, actions become more effective and problems become easier to solve.