Effective Leadership Skills Take Time to Ingrain

Jack Prot

In a busy workplace, a manager usually reacts out of habit. He doesn’t think, “What’s the best way to handle this?” He just handles the situation the way he usually does, because it’s familiar. Hopefully, that way of doing things is effective.

Suppose you’re busy and someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, I’ve got something I need to tell you.” And you say, “Can it wait?” But she says it’s really important, so you try to listen while you continue working on something else. If that’s what you usually do, that’s how you’ll react in a busy moment.

This isn’t an effective way to listen. But if you want to do it right nearly every time, you need to make the best way of listening a habit. And you can’t accomplish that by reading a book or by watching a 30-minute video.

Here’s an example from my own life. I love to swim for exercise and health. One day I was in the pool swimming laps, and when I got to the end of one of the laps this guy was standing there with a whistle around his neck. He said, “Hey! Let me give you a tip. When you bring your arm over, don’t slap the water. Reach out and gently put it in the water and extend it all the way. That way you’ll pull more water back and you’ll move through the water easier.”

That made sense to me. So for the rest of my swim, I tried to do what he said. But it was awkward. I did another 15 laps, concentrating on the technique. That’s a lot of strokes, but at the end of the swim, I still didn’t feel comfortable. But I believed him, so I persisted. At some point a few months later, it dawned on me that I was doing it right without thinking about it. It just felt natural.

Why did it take so long to ingrain that new technique?

Everything you do is directed by your brain. You can think it through and do something based on analysis and decision-making. Or you can do it simply because that’s how you do it. To react automatically like that, you need to have all the brain cells involved in that action already wired together. If they’re not interconnected, then you consciously have to direct yourself to perform the correct behavior.

Every skill, habit and behavior pattern requires a special neural pathway. It’s a lot like hard-wiring in a device. If you do something repeatedly, the brain cells involved will be stimulated to grow tiny filaments called dendrites. With enough repetition, the dendrites will grow until they connect with the other related brain cells. When they’re all interconnected, your brain will have the physical circuit that enables the behavior, quickly and efficiently.

How long does this take? The process is driven by repetitions of the behavior. So how long depends on how many times you try to apply the skill in your work or life. If you’re committed and you do it five or six times a day, the ingraining process will happen faster, maybe in a month or so. If you remember to do it every ten days, and if you make mistakes and learn from them, that’s learning, too. But it’s going to take you quite a bit longer to make the skill a habit in your work.

I know this from personal experience. Even though I have expert knowledge in people skills, several years ago my team complained about the way I listen. Though I struggled with their feedback, I eventually improved my listening skills. But it took me nearly two years before I was doing it right without thinking about it.

There’s no quick fix. The good news is that you can make any effective leadership skill your own. But ingraining the skill will take lots of application in the workplace – the equivalent of swimming hundreds of laps. This phase of learning has to happen in the real world, not in the classroom. You gotta do the work.

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