A number of researchers and authors have discussed how Action Learning develops a variety of leadership skills (these results are summarizes in one of my articles, “The Evidence for the Effectiveness of Action Learning,” that can be downloaded from Our Library). in summary, the results reported in this article indicate that Action Learning
- develops broad executive and managerial leadership skills;
- is particularly effective in developing collaborative/ shared leadership skills;
- improves the ability of managers to develop integrative, win/win solutions in conflict situations; and
- improves manager coaching skills.
Readers will note that these are the sort of “soft” leadership skills that you would expect to be developed in a highly socially interactive team process. These are also the sort of skills that are in great demand and short supply within large corporations and organizations. The ability of Action Learning to develop collaboration, innovation, and a learning culture accounts for much of the support and interest in Action Learning throughout the world.
Little attention, however, has been focused on how Action Learning develops another critical leadership skill – judgment. What is good judgment and how is it different from good thinking? Good judgment is more than just good critical thinking – applying sound logic to a problem. If that were the case, we would see a much stronger relationship between intellectual capabilities and judgment than research and our experience indicates. When we describe someone as having good judgment, we generally mean that the individual has been able to make a decision that creates more benefits or “up-sides” than problems or “down-sides” despite imperfect, ambiguous, and incomplete data; confusing and counteracting dynamics; and contradictory opinions or predictions. Furthermore, individuals who display good judgment are able to make good decisions while resisting the often corrosive emotional forces of greed, fear, revenge, hubris, etc. Recent research (see Daniel Goleman’s research on emotional intelligence) indicates that emotional and social intelligence contribute as much, and sometimes more, to success in organizations than cognitive abilities.
Although emotional and social skills are critical to success in organizations, they are much more difficult to develop than cognitive abilities. Intellectual problems typically have a “correct” answer and people, therefore, get immediate corrective feedback. That is why cognitive abilities can be developed by solving puzzles and problems provided by a computer program. When working on complex organizational problems, however, we seldom get immediate and direct feedback about whether we are taking the correct action or even whether we are going in the right direction.
This characteristic of organizational life is what makes Action Learning such a powerful method for developing judgment – especially the emotional and social intelligence aspects of judgment. Typically, the sort of urgent and critical problems that are the focus of Action Learning are complex, confusing, and filled with emotional land mines. That’s why no currently acceptable solutions exist for these problems and what makes them so difficult to solve. Here are 7 reasons why Action Learning is so effective in developing judgment when the process is led by experienced and properly trained Action Learning coaches.
- Action Learning includes frequent opportunities to assess how things are going – what’s working well, what can be improved, and what we can do differently. These processes provide the missing direct feedback necessary for developing complex leadership skills like judgment.
- By leading with questions rather than opinions, team members learn how others view a problem and the related situation before articulating their opinions. This ground rule not only increases understanding of the views of others but also increases empathy for their positions because feelings are frequently shared in the process.
- Action Learning coaches encourage team members to reflect on the impact of their behavior on the team’s ability to solve the problem. In this way, team members begin to understand how social and emotional as well as intellectual factors are contributing or interfering with team performance.
- Action Learning coaches can ask questions about factors that are critical for success (i.e., Who are the important stakeholders, and how will the team get their support? What are the barriers to successful implementation?) These factors are seldom considered when searching for the right answer or strategy. Typical problem solving focuses more upon what to do rather than how it is going to get done.
- Action Learning coaches can encourage team members to reflect on the emotional/non-verbal as well as intellectual factors related to the urgent and complex problem they are working on.
- Action Learning coaches can focus on smaller unnoticed incidents or events that impact success but are unlikely to be considered in grand and strategic plans.
- Action Learning coaches insist on taking action at the conclusion of every element of Action Learning. By taking action, team members see actual rather than theoretical results. This action generally leads to greater understanding of the social and emotional aspects of organizational, team, and individual change.
I hope that this blog will stimulate further discussion about the many ways that Action Learning develops essential leadership skills in the process of solving critical and urgent problems.
Master Action Learning Coach