We’ve been going about learning new skills all wrong

Here’s how to design leadership development in a way that will actually work.

We’ve been going about learning new skills all wrong
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Employee education sounds like a good investment. Who doesn’t want a well-trained staff? But it could be a waste of time and money if you’re not doing it effectively. U.S. companies spend about $160 billion teaching employees new skills and knowledge, yet just 1 in 4 senior managers report that training was critical to business outcomes, according to the Harvard Business Review. That’s because habits are hardwired, and people often eventually revert to their old ways.


“I’d been in leadership training for over a decade, and I noticed that people’s behavior was not really changing,” admits organizational psychologist Martin Lanik, CEO of Pinsight, provider of leadership-development solutions. “American corporations spend money on leadership training, but the confidence in leadership has been degrading. This created an existential crisis for myself. Was I dedicating my career to something that’s not making a bit of difference?”

This crisis prompted him to research leadership development with a focus on determining what’s wrong with it and how to design it better.

“The problem is that we’re all focused on knowledge acquisition,” says Lanik, author of The Leader Habit: Master the Skills You Need to Lead In Just Minutes a Day. “When people in an organization need to get better at a skill like delegating or public speaking, we say, ‘Here, read this book or take this class.’ It turns out that’s not an effective way to learn skills, and we forget quickly.”

Related: Try these 5 steps for learning new skills faster

Knowledge versus skill

After six days, people remember about 15% of a conversation, and that can be detrimental in a seminar-style class, says Lanik. The best way to learn comes down to recognizing the difference between acquiring knowledge and acquiring skills. When determining the best method of training, ask, “What do I want the person to do differently as a result?” Is it a basic understanding (knowledge) or is it a new behavior (skill)?

Lanik uses music as an example: “You can read a lot about music and its history, but that won’t make you a concert pianist,” he says. “That’s a skill that takes practice and behavior change on a daily basis.”


When you’re learning a skill, traditional training won’t work, says Lanik. “To learn a skill you have to adopt new habits and routines,” he says.

Related: The secret to learning new skills twice as fast

Instead, you have to take the skill and identify the behaviors that make it up. “Think small,” says Lanik. “For example, if you want to be better at the skill of delegation, you need to break the idea down into small microbehaviors.”

Lanik studied 800 managers around world to identify the smallest behaviors that distinguish effective learning from non-effective learning. In the case of delegation, the first step to be successful is confirming interest in the other party.

Before you can start adopting successful delegation as a habit, you need to associate it with a cue. All habits involve the pairing of a cue and a behavior: when the cue presents itself, you respond with the behavior. Habits are most effectively formed by repeatedly pairing the same cue with the same behavior through deliberate practice.

In the case of delegation, determine when you want the brain to automatically think of the behavior, says Lanik. For example, having a task you need to delegate is your cue. Then add the behavior of asking the person, “Is this something you’d like to do?” says Lanik.


“You’re pairing a cue and a behavior,” he says. “If you practice it for 66 days, the behavior will start being automatic. That’s how you build a skill. It becomes automatic because the brain has created a mental model. At the end of the day, you’re training yourself to have a behavior change.”

To learn or teach skills, identify a small behavior and associate it with a cue. “At the end of the training, give one daily exercise that will result in behavior change,” says Lanik. “Take one thing at a time; the smallest part. It seems counterintuitive, but stick with a little behavior change and it turns into a habit. When we get overwhelmed is where we run into problems. It needs to be something that doesn’t take much time, so it’s sustainable to do over time. It can’t take 30 minutes out of the day; that’s when people start procrastinating.”

Skills lead to more skills

The magic happens after two months when a behavior becomes a habit, says Lanik. “You’ll see a leader with a new skill he or she didn’t have before,” he says. “One habit gets transformed to other skills. It’s a natural psychological process.”

With new habits, leaders often change how they see themselves. “They start seeing themselves as a leader, providing coaching, giving more feedback, mentoring, and motivating,” says Lanik. “Things start to come naturally because the person has changed how they view themselves.”

Related: Six brain hacks to learn anything faster

What about knowledge?

There is a place for traditional training, and that place is in knowledge acquisition, says Lanik. “A lot of knowledge comes along with being a good leader,” he says. “For example, you need to know how to read a balance sheet, financials, and policies. It’s important to distinguish them from skills acquisition, such as delegating, employee engagement, and active listening. Those require habits.”