Leadership development is broken. Even though organizations spend billions of dollars annually on training, only 23% of leaders rate their company’s leadership development as high quality, and 77% of businesses report they struggle to find and develop leaders. To fix this broken system, leadership development programs should start following the science of habit activation, as we describe in a recent article in Fast Company.

Mainstays of leadership development, such as retreats, coaching, and content libraries, have individual strengths, but none satisfies all the required conditions for effective company-wide learning. These include easy recall of new habits (even under pressure), cost-effective scaling throughout an organization, and coherence in learning materials for different levels of leaders.

Amid increased burnout, disengagement, uncertainty, and constant change, high-quality leaders are needed now more than ever. Here are three ways we can reimagine leadership development to more effectively serve the needs of leaders and their organizations:

Make learning social

Humans are social animals, and when we learn with others, our brains naturally encode new information more strongly, and we later recall the information more easily. And when we see others practicing new habits, we feel positive social pressure to do the same. Learning with others in our company also creates a common language that allows leaders to communicate more effectively in the moment.

Although one might assume that the best social learning happens in person, NLI’s experience has shown that, when done correctly, an interactive virtual format is more effective at building lasting habits than an in-person workshop.

Build habits that stick

The first step in building habits is making the learning compelling and memorable. Elements such as storytelling and social interaction help capture and keep our attention. But even with compelling material, research shows that our attention takes a nosedive after 20 minutes. Therefore, it’s more effective to space several short learning sessions over weeks or months than to cram all the material into one long session.

One of the most powerful ways to change behavior is by having an insight — that “aha” moment when new connections form in our brain and motivate us to take action. Leadership development programs can encourage insight by asking learners to reflect on the learning material and think about how to apply it to their own workplace situations.

Finally, effective training should give participants plenty of opportunities to practice their new habits. It should also prompt them to develop systems that will reinforce their new behaviors long after the training has ended.

Scale learning throughout the organization

Instead of training only their top-level managers and assuming new knowledge and behaviors will “trickle down” to everyone else, companies should embrace “everyone to everyone” learning. In this model, the entire organization goes through the same virtual learning experience at the same time, with both self-paced and synchronous activities.

The everyone-to-everyone approach harnesses the power of social learning and ensures coherence across the organization. With many people working remotely, a virtual option can be the most cost-effective, convenient way to scale learning across an entire company. But to be effective, a virtual platform must incorporate social learning and habit building, with a focus on generating strong insights.

Recently, NLI developed a new leadership solution, LEAD: The Neuroscience of Effective Management, that incorporates all of these strategies in an interactive virtual environment, which we’re calling the habit activation platform (HAP). Preliminary data are promising: Ninety-seven percent of LEAD participants are applying skills they learned at least once per week, with 72% applying the skills three or more times per week. We believe this solution will help bridge the leadership development gap by building the habits leaders need to face today’s challenges. A version of this article appears in Fast Company. To read the full article, click here.

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