You know the drill. You head up a big, complicated team project. Some things go well, others don't. Afterward, you pat yourself on the back, thank your team for their hard work, and think you've all gained some valuable experience.
But better think again. Despite what we've been told, experience isn't always the best teacher all by itself, especially when it comes to leading group efforts.
That's the conclusion of Scott DeRue, associate dean for executive education and professor of management at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business. According to DeRue, the usual way we absorb experiences isn't all that effective. We wind up making the same mistakes, he says, even after asking ourselves the typical questions: "What happened? How did it go? What did we learn?"
DeRue studied 99 managers from 82 different countries and found a common denominator in how they led their teams. At some point, all hit a wall as the challenges mounted. As a result, they became overwhelmed and stopped learning. Experience proved a poor guide.
That set DeRue on a course to discover what it takes to confront challenging situations without becoming overwhelmed and stuck. The problem, as DeRue sees it, is that we keep thinking about experience in terms of performance. But instead of focusing on results and outcomes, we may do better to put those aside and think about learning.
"We are now focusing as much time on teaching people how to learn as we are on teaching them how to lead," DeRue told the Ross School website.
DeRue's favored approach combines reflection and experimentation, a process he calls "mindful engagement." This involves an individual or a team stepping back after completing a project, in order to reflect on what's occurred and become more aware of the present circumstances.
These are the three principles of mindful engagement:
1. A learning mind-set: According to DeRue, we change and improve primarily by testing the impact of our behavior in different situations, not similar ones. Many of us fail to experiment with new behaviors—and many leaders, remembering what's worked in the past, discourage their teams from trying new approaches—because we're so focused on meeting business objectives. But to promote learning, DeRue says, we need to change how we think about goals and objectives.
"People will say 'I want to grow revenues by 25%,'" he told me, by way of example, "but they rarely announce that they want to improve their listening skills." In reality, many of us think soft skills—like listening—are ingrained traits (you're either a "good listener" or you aren't) and can't be learned. But as researchers like Carol Dweck have demonstrated, that's only true if you believe it to be. Having a "growth mind-set" can set you up to learn things you may otherwise have thought "fixed."
In DeRue's model, the way to improve even those qualities is simply to experiment. If you're so intent on expressing your opinion that you fail to listen to others, you need to try several different approaches to listening better: Try letting others talk first, and see the impact. Then try just talking less. Then try following up each of your own statements by asking your listener's opinion on what you've just said. As you learn from your experiments, you can adjust your behavior further.
Successful leaders—and whole teams—usually don't do this. As a result, they often can't see past what's worked previously. They don't learn much, so they fall into the same old mistakes.
2. Self-reflection and a willingness to speculate: This is different from the traditional Monday morning quarterbacking. The difficulty with simply evaluating what happened, DeRue, says, is that people often make incorrect assumptions about what worked, or didn’t, when they assess their own performance.
Instead, DeRue asks people to consider alternative scenarios—actions they could've taken but didn't—and to speculate on the outcomes. A Fortune 500 tech company DeRue worked with had recently introduced a technology to a new market segment. The company made a significant investment in the launch, but it didn’t pay off. Several team members thought the problem was the particular customer segment, while others pointed fingers at the execution.
Asked to reflect on what could've been done differently, the team was able to cross off variables the members hadn't considered—leading them to realize that the culprit was indeed the execution process. But as DeRue explained, had the team not gone through that exercise, they probably would've blamed the customer segment and executed new projects in much the same way.
3. Mentors who don't hold back their advice: In order to learn and improve, leaders and their teams need to actively seek out feedback, not just wait for a post-mortem after their project's wrapped up. Research DeRue conducted with his colleague Sue Ashford found that those who do ask for feedback have a more accurate sense of the way others perceive them.
This principle amounts to a leadership issue: leaders need to be proactive about offering their advice and mentorship unsolicited. That isn't the same as micromanaging, of course, but it's critical in helping team members evaluate their own thinking each step of the way. DeRue also found that people willingly offer feedback to those who sincerely ask for it.
While it's common to think that we'll seem lost if we ask for help, DeRue found the opposite to be true. Feedback-seekers were viewed more favorably than those who didn't seek out guidance. There was an added bonus for the former group as well: Not only were they viewed more positively, but they also learned more and exhibited more creativity.
Learning, creative thinking, and an interest in doing better by doing things differently: That's about as good a recipe as you'll find for avoiding the same errors time and again.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect that Scott DeRue's research on feedback was conducted in collaboration with Sue Ashford.