In my previous post, I referred you to articles about how to lead virtual teams. As educators, we often assume that people lack knowledge and once it is imparted it will be used. But there is often a big gap between knowledge and translating it into action. This knowing-doing gap exists in leadership development as well. The field of training transfer provides many suggestions to reduce the knowing-doing gap and these focus on trainee characteristics, training design, and the work environment to improve training transfer (see an example of such research). A simple intervention that works on a personal level is goal setting.
Goal setting involves creating a list of desirable leadership behaviors, setting targets for those behaviors (e.g., 5 times per week), and monitoring progress towards achieving those targets. When creating a list of desirable behaviors, make sure that the behaviors are specific, actionable behaviors rather than general behaviors. For instance, corresponding to the general behavior of showing energy and enthusiasm, some specific behaviors would be to ‘show willingness to take on additional responsibilities,’ ‘come in early to work,’ or ‘finish the work assigned to me before others remind me to.’
To set targets, monitor opportunities for displaying desirable behaviors during the first week or two. Make a note of their frequencies. As a first pass, the frequencies of opportunities you experience could be used as targets.You don’t have to get your targets right the first time. Give yourself the latitude to adjust the targets to make sure that you don’t exhaust yourself and have the energy to perform well.
The power of goal setting has also been shown in areas other than management. The example of goal setting in the Nike+ system comes to mind (see the related Wired magazine article). This system combined the sensor in a runner’s Nike shoe with an iPod and allowed the runner to enter the target for a run and track her/his performance. The runner’s goal and performance data were then uploaded to NikePlus.com. Analysis of this data revealed that if someone persisted and reached five runs, that person was likely to keep running and uploading data. If you are changing your leadership behaviors, the implication of this for you is to be patient, especially with yourself. Don’t give up in face of the effort that may be required upfront. Once you taste some success, it will feed on itself to motivate you even more to change your behavior.
There are a few things that you should keep in mind to increase your chances of success.
Build commitment through sharing. You will find it useful to share your list and targets with someone you trust (e.g., your peer or superior). Such sharing builds public commitment to your goals. To strengthen this commitment, also consider sharing how well you are achieving your targets with them.
Preventing relapse with reminders to yourself. There is always a danger of relapse to old behaviors. While there are elaborate relapse prevention programs (see example), I suggest that you first try something simpler: set up an alert system reminding you of the most important goals you have set for yourself as part of the goal-setting intervention. For instance, set up weekly or twice-weekly reminders on your smartphone about your most critical goals. Such reminders can be effective. In a study reported in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, participants signed up for a 16-week, individually tailored e-mail program to improve their health-related behaviors. When these individuals received weekly email reminders that alerted them about their goals (e.g., go for a walk during a coffee break), they were more likely to engage in healthy behaviors than individuals in the control group who did not sign up for the program.
Show yourself some compassion. There will be times when you don’t meet your targets or you find that you have relapsed to old behaviors. Don’t be hard on yourself. Show yourself some compassion. Research suggests that those who show self-compassion are more likely to be motivated to improve after failing or making a mistake.
Don’t delude yourself via self-enhancement tendencies. Research suggests that assessing how you are doing relative to your goals could easily become an evaluation of one’s self in addition to an evaluation of outcomes. Be on guard against the self-enhancement tendency, which is the desire to see oneself as a winner irrespective of actual performance. Such a tendency distorts one’s cognitive processes and is likely to be accentuated by low performance and perceived personal responsibility for that performance (these threaten one’s self-image). This may show up as revision of one’s targets in order to look good or excessive attribution of poor performance to outside influences.
Contrast a desired future with present reality. When you set goals and plan desirable actions and targets, consider the obstacles or challenges you are likely to encounter. Recent research indicates that when you don’t consider the challenges, your goals and related actions are likely to become mere fantasies. You are unlikely to create realistic plans that can increase your goal commitment and help you succeed. Such mental contrasting helps by stimulating process simulation and if-then planning.
We are often inspired by new knowledge we may receive to change our leadership behaviors. But we are challenged to translate our inspiration into action. I have outlined a set of steps to close the knowing-doing gap and become a more effective leader.