I have been teaching in many leadership programs and I have seen first-hand what it means for the participants to take the “cognitive shortcut” when it comes to bring a group on the edge of its own learning.
For instructors and participants alike, how much more comfortable is to stay on the familiar grounds of intellectual discussions and rational arguments, without never daring push the group on the deeper and more personable territories of emotional and intuitive work. What awesome, convincing and very compelling arguments are made to understand debate, discuss, analyze, and clarify! All for the apparent good purpose of going deeper but in reality – I argue – in the name of never experiencing anything.
I call this tendency in groups during learning programs “the cognitive shortcut” and I see it as a way to avoid real learning in a leadership lab. If we give in to this tendency, we emerge from the room after a few days f work with a great, deep intellectual understanding but with very little chances to real impact our situations back at work. This is because we have taken the time of our leadership lab arguing on its intellectual merits, and avoided “experiencing” first hand that different “way to be in the world”. We have – consciously or not – substituted direct, personal experience with deeper intellectual understanding.
The cognitive shortcut is the same one that feeds the perennial problem solving mindset of solution searching. Isn’t ultimately our focus on the “quick fix” just a way to externalize, sanitize, objectify and escape the invitation to live and learn? When we solve problems we prevent problems to solve us. We focus on the solution so that we can then go back to our life. But when it comes to transformative learning, we fail if our lives stay the same. Transformative learning is not about going back to our usual understanding of things, but to challenge it and experience the challenge as “a leadership lab” for a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world.
Yet, nobody touches us. Even an emotional intelligence session, especially those aiming to go a little deeper and presented as an opportunity for “change” are easily neutralized and turned from an invitation to look inside to a forum of elegantly crafted rational arguments that debate the 4th tier framework but never why we do what we do or what color our blind spots are. And the more educated we are, the easier is to act this way.
The cost for this cognitive shortcut is continuing to develop leaders and live lives that reduce our humanity and our ability to feel. “The aspiration of never being hurt or touched; the same one the work “touchy feely” incarnates: an aspiration to be above the frail and well distant from our shared human ability to be ourselves as a subject. As a unique person.
How do we teach smart people how to learn? Here are 4 ways to trying to crumble this true “resistance to learning”:
- Refuse to get drawn in the cognitive discussion. Cut it short.
- Call it out and confront people with their gift for deeper work.
- Turn on the “heat” and let chaos emerge, allowing it to drawn on without using your authority as a teacher.
- Encourage people to give up on problem-solving. Ask them to “show up” differently, not as a fixer but as a learner and experiment with a different way to see/deal with things.
What could you accomplish in your organization if you dealt appropriately with the “cognitive shortcut” in your learning programs?
Adriano understands how to increase your returns on leadership. He works with professionals in world-class organizations that include Philip Morris, Microsoft, the World Bank, Johns Hopkins University, the US Marine Corps, the State Department and NASA. A skilled experiential educator with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of ParticipAction Consulting, Inc., a firm committed to help clients redefine change, collaboration and power in their organizations. He co-authored "Teachable Moments of Leadership" with Jill Hufnagel in 2016, on a learning methodology that gets results by going from PowerPoint to …powerful!