One Good Habit Beats Ten Skills

It’s no secret that traditional training methods are generally boring, ineffective, and disconnected from the challenges that employees face on the job. As a result, it’s not uncommon for employees to tune out or forget much of what they’ve learned shortly after the training has ended. Yet the need for development is real, and as seen in the continual rise in training budgets.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to design and run a leadership development program for the top team of one of Southeast Asia’s hottest unicorn startups. My goal was to have a lasting impact on the participants as well as the culture around them.

To do this, I incorporated a lot of interactive activities, role plays, and hands-on exercises, and I made sure to tailor these to specific challenges the team said they were facing.

At the end of each session I did an anonymous survey to assess their level of confidence in and commitment to applying these new skills. All the workshops scored very high on both points, so I definitely felt good about the impact I was having.

But to my disappointment, when I checked in three months later I found that the program hadn’t been as sticky as I’d hoped. Most of the execs said they really loved it and learned a lot, but found they were too busy to ‘remind themselves’ of these good practices in the moments that they needed them most.

There was however one exception. In our first workshop, I taught them that in any difficult conversation — whether it be a conflict, a misunderstanding, or the moments after you’ve delivered tough feedback — the golden rule is “Shut Up and Listen.”

These words are so easy to remember and put into action that everyone said they were still doing this, even if they’d let many of the more sophisticated skills lapse. In other words, they successfully turned this nugget of wisdom into a habit.

While it’s disappointing that the program didn’t yield the broader results I was hoping for, I’m not giving up on the idea of reimagining training and making it more effective. But in the future I’ll focus on instilling a very small number of skills so deeply that they become second-nature — habits.

Good habits will always beat out good skills in the heat of the moment.

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Rob Bier

Rob is an expert guide in the world of startup leadership and high-performance organizations. A 3-time CEO, he now advises many startups including 7 unicorns.