I recently heard of a leadership programme where it is expected that half way through the programme participants will contact the CEO of their large organisation to complain. They are doubtful about the usefulness of the programme and feel overwhelmed, stressed and angry. The CEO apparently responds by telling them to ‘suck it up’. Why does he tell them this? Because he sees that, in the long run, the programme works – the majority of participants do become better leaders after the programme. They are wiser, more courageous and demonstrate more integrity.
Although the programme apparently ‘works’ it sounds to me like it is causing unnecessary suffering to participants. Let me explain what I mean.
When I was a junior doctor, all gall bladder operations involved a long incision, a 2 hour operation, 5 days in hospital and 4-6 weeks recovery time. Fast forward 15 years and most gall bladder operations are now done laparoscopically, via small incisions in the abdomen. The patient only needs to stay in hospital overnight and returns to normal activities within a week.
I think that some leadership trainers are doing the equivalent of an open cholecystectomy. They are inflicting unnecessary trauma on participants in order to achieve the required changes when they could be using newer, more effective and less damaging behaviour change technology.
Contextual behavioural science has the clues to these more effective and less traumatic ways of achieving the same important outcomes.
Contextual behavioural science (CBS) aims to ‘predict and influence behavior, with precision, scope, and depth.’ What this means is that CBS is using scientific inquiry to work out exactly what works in helping human beings to develop and grow.
So what does a leadership course based on these principles look like?
- It understands that most of us become inflexible when we feel threatened. If the learning environment is safe, secure and playful we are more likely to learn new behaviours that we will then apply in the real world.
- At the start of the programme participants choose the values they want to express through their work. What they want to stand for. How they want others to experience them. This is important as this links the leadership programme to their own internal motivation (‘What is important to me’) which is much more powerful than external motivation ( e.g.’My CEO says I have to suck it up’).
- A combination of 360 feedback and reflection (supported by coaching) helps participants to identify the behaviours that they need to Keep, Start and Stop doing. Participants learn research findings about which leadership behaviours are effective in which settings; so that they can make wise choices about what behaviours to focus on.
- Participants explore the function of any behaviours that they find both problematic and resistant to change. They then use this information to develop a plan for change. This is because behaviours that look the same can actually have completely different underlying aims. If the plan for change doesn’t take this into account it is likely to be ineffective. For example: participants who complain to the CEO could either be trying to avoid something difficult or they could be asking for a more effective leadership programme. In the first case, some work around becoming better at handling uncomfortable emotions might be warranted, whereas in the second, it might be helpful to learn how to manage upwards more skilfully.
- Facilitators in a programme based on contextual behavioural science understand that problematic thoughts and feelings are often what hold people back from expressing courageous, caring and inspiring behaviours. The programme therefore includes evidence based methods to handle painful thoughts and feelings more effectively.
- Participants learn to become more mindful. They become good at observing their own behaviour and it’s impact. Noticing when their behaviour aligns with their own deeply held values and when they are off course…and then self correcting.
- Relational Frame Theory is used to improve the design of activities and metaphors. Why relational frame theory? Because it is a theory of language, cognition and learning that has more than 60 studies to support it.
- During workshops, the behaviours that participants have identified as needing to change are likely to occur. These events are seen as opportunities for authentic and thoughtful conversations where the effects of these behaviours on both the particular participant and on other participants is explored. The outcomes of the behaviour in the session are then linked to their possible outcomes in the ‘real’ world.
- Facilitators and other participants also look for and encourage positive changes in behaviour. Participants make plans for how to try out these new behaviours in their work and then observe the effect.
- Participant’s managers are seen as an important part of the programme. It is much easier to change when people around you are supportive of the change.
A leadership course run this way would still be challenging for participants but it would be less likely to overwhelm them. Even better, early research is suggesting it might even be more effective than standard leadership training. (Professor Frank Bond has some research in press showing just this).