How Behavioral Science is Shaping the Future of Leadership Development

Many companies are suffering from the lack of talent to fulfill their business transformation, become more agile and cope with the challenges of an organization being often stressed, overwhelmed and disengaged – according to the latest 2021 Global Leadership Forecast only 11% of companies have a strong Leadership bench.

Often leaders have the knowledge of the typical traits, skills and behaviors for leadership – as they keep themselves consistently informed on what is necessary to be a good leader – the real problem is their capacity for action specially when they are overwhelmed with work or unmotivated to take action when a new behavior is not rightly valued by their company culture. These outcomes are anchored in our human biology: our brain perceives change as a threat due to the uncertainty of the future, generating behaviors that are related to procrastination or simply reducing our motivation for change.

To explain behavioral change – I use a model developed by a Stanford professor: BJ Fogg. According to the Fogg behavioral model: three elements should converge to either create a new behavior, restrict or refine an existing behavior: Motivation, Ability, and Prompt. In the context of learning, these principles can be adapted to nudge people to activate a positive attitude towards change and start producing actions or behaviors towards a specific intention.

The 3 elements of behavioral change to be embedded in the development of leadership are:

1. Motivation

Motivation is a volatile element for humans as it may be temporary and often when we have a goal or intention. People may realize that reaching a goal takes effort and motivation could vanish.
Here are some principles to be considered to enhance the level of motivation to achieve change on behaviors:
  • We tend to engage in behaviors in which achievements are recognized.
  • Using action trackers to communicate progress and next expectations is a way to engage learners in the optimum flow where actions are kept in control: still within their capabilities but challenging enough. As both boredom (because the challenge is too easy) or anxiety (if too difficult) lead to disengagement.
  • Deciding on how to act towards a challenge in a risk-free environment enhances engagement in the learning. This is boosted by letting learners set their own learning goals.
  • The way a facilitator creates a narrative that is personalized, genuine and relatable helps learners engage in different perspectives than their own.

2. Ability

Learners must be able to execute the desired learning actions or challenges. If the step is too difficult, the brain will activate ‘fear of change’ signals that will create friction; learners should be provided knowledge and practice where they are maintained engaged. The actions should be designed short and simple by minimizing efforts such as time to accomplish, money, physical or cognitive resources.

There is a significant positive persuasion to learn and practice when simplifying behaviors such as shorter duration of training (micro-learnings) and practice through small behaviors (micro-habits) that will limit the physical and cognitive effort. Improvements in the ability to change are observed in designed behaviors that have the following characteristics:
  • Relevancy: the behavior should be done in the context of the learner’s work and be tailor-made to their specific aspiration.
  • Simplification: learners should be able to perform short and effortless actions—for example, two minutes of planning for the three most important tasks of the day.
  • Consistency: repetition of micro-habits allows to create rituals that become automated without cognitive efforts. If doing a target behavior causes overthinking, then we do not see the behavior as simple, which harms the brain processing fluency.
  • Feedback: Prompt feedbacks as learners interact to make it easier for them to adjust their behaviors and maintain their engagement

3. Prompts

Despite having the will to achieve specific actions, we tend to forget about them. A recognizable context or situation should be included in a learning program to remind the learner practicing the skill.

To meet today's demand for leadership upskilling, a methodology centred on "learning how to learn" rather than merely transferring knowledge is essential - the list of skills needed to complete a job grows every year. Traditional one-time in-class or elearning trainings cannot have a long-term influence on abilities that require a behavioural shift.

In most cases leaders should learn and practice across two areas: 1. how they manage themselves as an individual (through skills such as awareness, emotional intelligence, agility, etc) and 2. how they inspire others. Covering these 2 areas allows leaders to acquire the mindset, the psychological resources and the skills to be equipped for change and drive the change in others.

In the Middle East, behavioral science in leadership development has been pioneered by the EdTech startup Bessern, with measurable results in organizations performance, wellbeing and employee engagement.

Upskilling leaders requires a shift in learning methodology, where crafting new behaviors is the only proof of success. People can only acquire new behaviors by consistent practice, personalization, continuous feedback, and measurement of progress.

In general, when learning skills with an outcome of long-lasting behavioral change – Consistency beats Intensity: the practice of micro-actions reduces the risk of failure and helps reinforce a mental process that can be easily extrapolated for the acquisition of life or professional skills.
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