In August 2018, John Hittler wrote a post for the Forbes Coaching Council making a case for the importance of learning to unlearn things.  This caught my attention, as many users of E.A.S.I- Consult’s® Burke Learning Agility® tests have recently asked me questions related to developing learning agility. This is an interesting and yet not unexpected evolution from a couple years ago when the Burke questions were more along the lines of what is learning agility, reflecting how our customer base continues to grow and better understand the importance of learning agility in their organization.  As more people complete the assessment, they learn there are more areas where they can increase their learning agility and they want to know how to do this.

I have been working with leaders for several years on their leadership style.  Leadership style consists of the things a leader says and does to accomplish work, provide direction to their team and develop their people.  The leadership assessment tool we were using showed the participants what they thought they were doing as a leader.  Their people gave them feedback on what they experienced from the person’s leadership.

Surprise, surprise — these two views often did not match.

Once we reached a point where the leader reconciled the information they had received, they needed to decide what if anything they wanted to do about their leadership styles.  Many times, “what” people described that they would do differently was to do less of something.  Think about that.  If I told you I was going to be less directive, less negative in my feedback or less of a micromanager, how confident would you be about my success?  Not so much.

When you think about doing less of something, what is the thing you are constantly thinking about?  The thing you want to do less of.

The approach I take with leaders is to have them tell me the things they are going to start doing more of, like providing clear direction, giving balanced feedback or listening to their team members. These are all things a leader can “do” that we can measure.  I suggest to these leaders they would be more effective working on the things they needed to do to provide clear direction versus the things they would do less of to be less directive.  I suggest that by doing more of something, inadvertently it would cause you to do less of something else.

Focus on what you intend to do, not what you intend to not do.

This is why I was attracted to Hittler’s post.  How do you go about unlearning something?  A baseball golf swing.  Always finding something to be critical about in a subordinate’s performance.  So, if I told you to unlearn those things — I never want to see you doing those things again — do you have a clear picture of what you would need to do?  Hittler says it is about extinction.  I seem to remember the proponent of extinction was Pavlov and he was doing something with dogs and salivating when he rang a bell.  Hittler says you flood the old behavior with examples of the new behavior, and it will cause the old behavior to disappear.  He uses the example of immersion in a foreign language and by forcing yourself to speak this new language (or not communicate), you will have no choice but to develop this capability in the new language. I hear what Hittler is saying.  In an immersion situation you do not have an option to speak your first language.  In order to communicate you must speak, this second language.  Back to my example of the leader who tends to give negative feedback when reacting to a subordinate’s performance: rather than have them tell you what they are not going to do, they need to focus on what you will start doing .  Assuming the person experiences some success with that new behavior and that behavior is reinforced, hopefully they will continue.

The challenge for many leaders in organizations is that when things are going well (and there is not a lot of stress) it is easier to maintain new behaviors.  Where these leaders really are tested is when the heat is on.  There is an impending deadline and a direct report’s performance is significantly different than what the leader was expecting.  This is where the old behavior is most likely to reemerge.  How do you give yourself the space or interval to consciously choose your response?  I believe this is something that needs to be built into acquiring the new capability.  Hittler’s idea of flooding the person’s situation with new ideas leads to extinction of the old behaviors.  That makes me uncomfortable.  That old, grooved response may always be there, or it will certainly be there for a long time.  Extinction may be more an aspiration than a likely outcome.  That old less effective behavior is still out there looking for an opportunity to reemerge.

Part of our learning the new effective behavior is a mechanism to not simply react in a situation (particularly under stress) and make a conscious choice what behavior in your repertoire you are going to select.

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About the Author

David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for E.A.S.I-Consult®E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit, email or call 800.922.EASI.