Why multitasking is bad for our brains – by Ben Slater

Ben Slater is Sales & Marketing Director at Seed, a platform that applies marketing automation and data science to hiring. Follow @BenJHSlater. This post first appeared on the Seed Jobs blog. 

How many browser tabs do you have open right now?

I’m guessing it’s over 10, maybe 20. Some may be for research, some to help us stay in touch with clients and colleagues , maybe some are little guilty pleasures – whatever they are, they’re not helping.

It’s almost impossible for us to sit down and work on a single task – I’ll admit that there’s little chance of me writing this blog post without checking my email or responding to a tweet or two!

Switching between different tasks leaves us feeling breathless – we’ve had ‘one of those days’, where we’ve felt insanely busy yet have achieved little.

Even in the evening we don’t learn – we eat dinner with the television on, we listen to the radio while we read a book – why are we so bad at sitting down and focusing on one thing?

It distracts us from our main objective, but there is also evidence to suggest that multitasking is bad for our brains! Sounds serious – maybe it’s time to work out a new work routine…

Why do we do it?

The simple answer? It’s so hard not to.

Technology has made everything so quick and easy. Our smartphones are Swiss army knife-like devices that let us do pretty much anything – from booking a holiday to tuning your guitar, they’ve got you covered.

With an app for everything, it’s hard not to try and squeeze value from every second of the day. Walking to the supermarket? Why not write up your shopping list while listening to podcast sensation ‘Serial‘. Having lunch with a friend? Make sure you check Facebook to see what your other friends are up to!

multitasking 520x326 Why multitasking is bad for our brains

The science behind it

So what’s the science behind our obsession with not wasting a second in the day?

Why it feels good

Our brain is excellent at tricking us into thinking we’re being efficient. Studies show that multitasking tends to lead to the release of dopamine – ‘the happy hormone’. We’re eager to reward ourselves for getting so much done at once!

Our attention can be easily captured by something shiny and new – almost akin to a magpie! Ironically it’s the section of the brain that we need the most to help us stay focused that suffers the most.

The reward-seeking centres of the brain are delighted when we switch between tasks – every time we take a look at a shiny new email, tweet or text message we’re releasing small pleasure impulses. No wonder it’s so easy to get distracted.

Why it’s actually bad

It makes us stressed. Multitasking has been proven to trigger the release of stress-hormone cortisol which affects everything from your mental capacity to your muscle density – say goodbye to that hard-earned six-pack!

Want to avoid that? It must be as easy as ignoring those new emails right?

Wrong. Recent research suggests that even having the opportunity to multitask lowers our ability to solve problems and effectively manage tasks by roughly 10 IQ points. Merely having an email sitting unread in your inbox might be ruining your productivity!

Here’s a quick example to show how serious this loss of mental capacity is:

We sometimes discuss the effect of marijuana on our ability to think clearly – the same study showed that multitasking may have an even more negative cognitive effect.

Is anyone good at multitasking?

You would think that constant exposure to a number of things at once would make some people experts in switching between different tasks. You would think that some people would become adept at filtering information and would become even more productive.

That would be logical right?

Well, logical or not, that doesn’t happen. Research suggests that multi-taskers are actually far worse at switching between different tasks and tuning out irrelevant information.

There are a couple of isolated examples of ‘supertaskers‘ who seem to be able to handle the workload but, as a rule, it seems that multitasking is something to avoid.

What’s our main distraction?

What’s the number one distraction you face at work?

The seemingly unstoppable flood of emails is mine, (I’m sure many of you face a similar problem). Friends and colleagues report the same problem. We feel like we’re obliged to respond, but doing so makes it impossible to get anything else done.

 Why multitasking is bad for our brains

It’s become such a dominant part of our workflow that we now obsess over getting to Inbox 0. The moment when we are finally back on top – Mashable even describes it as the ‘holy grail‘ of the digital lifestyle.

Whether you’ve hit Inbox 0 or not, I have several problems with email:

1 – People expect an instant reply

The steps that it takes to write and deliver a letter buy you some time. People understand that you’re not going to get back to them straight away – you can put a letter to one side and deal with it when you’re ready.

In today’s digital world, we’re always available. Out of the office? That’s fine, you can pick up your new messages on your shiny new iPhone or tablet. There’s no excuse to postpone your reply!

Social expectation also dictates that we respond – we don’t want to upset the sender. I use a Gmail plugin from RelateIQ that lets me see when someone has opened my email – despite my feelings on email I find it difficult not to get slightly annoyed when I see someone has opened my message but has chosen not to reply.

2 – Anyone can email you

We tend to be pretty selective with ‘snail mail‘ – it’s rare that you would write to someone you don’t know.

Our approach to email is totally different. We’re prepared to use any trick in the book to get someone’s email address, I’m no different – I use a great tool from Spokepoint. Once we’ve verified that it’s correct it’s open season – email is sufficiently impersonal that we don’t mind sending hundreds of messages to people we’ve never met.

These ‘cold’ emails flood our inbox. We waste valuable time filtering through them, archiving and deleting as we go. My main frustration is the lack of effort that people make with their messages. There is little inclination to write emails that seem even vaguely personal – hundreds of other people are deleting the same email!

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3 – Every email requires an instant decision

The constant decision making that trawling through email takes a toll on the brain. Continually shifting our concentration forces the brain to rapidly burn through fuel leaving us exhausted and disorientated.

Even popular inbox management apps like Mailbox, (designed to stop email wasting your time), want you to make a choice – is this email a ‘must respond’ or can you defer it until tomorrow.

How do you become more productive and stop wasting time?

If you’re looking for a golden solution that’s going to help you get back on top of things then you’re going to be disappointed. There isn’t a perfect fix, but there are tactics that you can use to stop multitasking as much and become more productive:

1 – Evening planning

This one isn’t rocket science but it really works. Spending just 10 minutes every evening jotting down the main things you want to achieve the next day allows you to be much more focused at work.

These are the tasks you need to build your day around – make sure you get them done before you start responding to messages and scouring Twitter for interesting tweets.

2 – Pomodoro technique

I’m trying this out at the moment and I’m really enjoying it. It’s a time management technique devised by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980′s.

You split your workday into 25 minute periods of intense, focused work, that are followed by 5 minute breaks. The method is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility.

I use the 25 minute stretches of focus to tackle my major tasks for the day, (usually the ones I have planned the evening before), and the 5 minute breaks to ‘switch off’ and respond to emails and tweets.

I’d definitely recommend giving it a go. You can even buy your very own tomato shaped timer to keep track of your work schedule if you fancy! (Below)

pomodoro technique 520x260 Why multitasking is bad for our brains

3 – Schedule ‘email’ into your day

I haven’t tried this myself but some productivity experts recommend scheduling a time every day where you deal with your emails and other correspondence.

Try putting a slot into your calendar every day that you devote to reading and replying to tweets, messages and emails – this is the only time that you should have your Gmail or Outlook open.

You may even want to experiment with turning notifications on your phone and browser off to make sure you stick to this – although that could mean you miss the occasional ‘urgent’ message.

Final word

We’re not really to blame for multitasking. It’s hard to force ourselves to ignore incoming messages that we feel like we have to answer and stop ourselves flitting between different tasks when we’re so busy.

Each email we send gives us a sense of accomplishment (and a large spoonful of reward hormones) – it feels like we’re getting on top of our work, becoming more organised.

The truth may be the opposite. We’re distracting ourselves from the things we really need to get done.

It’s pretty hard to stop multitasking, but I’ve enjoyed becoming more focused with my day. I’d really recommend trying some of the methods I mentioned above and seeing if it makes a difference to your productivity.

Final fact – music isn’t multitasking

Don’t worry, you don’t have to shut iTunes down! Listening to music occupies a separate part of the brain that doesn’t interfere with your work – it doesn’t interfere with your productivity.

How Virtual Humans Can Build Better Leaders – by Randall W. Hill, Jr


20140728_2The aviation industry has long relied on flight simulators to train pilots to handle challenging situations. These simulations are an effective way for pilots to learn from virtual experiences that would be costly and difficult or dangerous to provide in the real world.

And yet in business, leaders commonly find themselves in tricky situations for which they haven’t trained. From conducting performance reviews to negotiating with peers, they need practice to help navigate the interpersonal dynamics that come into play in interactions where emotions run high and mistakes can result in lost deals, damaged relationships, or even harm to their — or their company’s — reputation.

Some companies, particularly those with substantial resources, do use live-role playing in management and other training. But this training is expensive and limited by time and availability constraints, and lack of consistency. Advances in artificial intelligence and computer graphics are now enabling the equivalent of flight simulators for social skills – simulators that have the potential to overcome these problems. These simulations can provide realistic previews of what leaders might encounter on the job, engaging role-play interactions, and constructive performance feedback for one-on-one conversations or complex dynamics involving multiple groups or departments.

Over the past fifteen years, our U.S. Army-funded research institute has been advancing both the art and science behind virtual human role players, computer generated characters that look and act like real people, and social simulations — computer models of individual and group behavior. Thousands of service men and women are now getting virtual reality and video game-based instruction and practice in how to counsel fellow soldiers, how to conduct cross-cultural negotiations and even in how to anticipate how decisions will be received by different groups across, and outside of, an organization. Other efforts provide virtual human role players to help train law students in interviewing child witnesses, budding clinicians in how to improve their diagnostic skills and bedside manner, and young adults on the autism spectrum disorders in how to answer questions in a job interview.

Our research is exploring how to build resilience by taking people through stressful virtual situations, like the loss of a comrade, child or leader, before they face them in reality. We are also developing virtual humans that can detect a person’s non-verbal behaviors and react and respond accordingly. Automated content creation tools allow for customized scenarios and new software and off-the-shelf hardware are making it possible to create virtual humans modeled on any particular person. It could be you, your boss, or a competitor.

Imagine facing a virtual version of the person you have to lay off. Might you treat him or her differently than a generic character? What if months of preparation for an international meeting went awry just because you declined a cup of tea? Wouldn’t you wish you’d practiced for that? If a virtual audience programmed to react based on your speaking style falls asleep during your speech, I’d be surprised if you didn’t you pep up your presentation before facing a real crowd.

It is still early days in our virtual-human development work, but the results are promising. An evaluation of ELITE (emergent leader immersive training environment), the performance review training system we developed for junior and noncommissioned officers, found that students showed an increase in retention and application of knowledge, an increase in confidence using the skills, and awareness of the importance of interpersonal communication skills for leadership.

A related study showed that subjects found the virtual human interaction as engaging and compelling as the same interaction with a live human role-player. I can say from personal experience that asking questions of the students in a virtual classroom can be exhilarating (and unnerving when the virtual student acts just like a “real” student, slouching in boredom and mumbling an answer). Unlike a live human actor, however, a virtual human does not need to be paid, can work anytime, and can be consistent with all students, or take a varied approach if needed. Virtual human systems can have the added advantage of built-in assessment tools to track and evaluate a performance.

Technology alone is not the answer, of course As I recently wrote in “Virtual Reality and Leadership Development,” a chapter of the book Using Experience to Develop Leadership Talent, virtual humans and video game-based systems are only as effective as the people who program them. No matter how convincing a virtual human is, it’s just an interface. If the instructional design behind it is flawed it won’t be effective. So we focus as intensively on what a virtual human is designed to teach, how learning will occur, and how to continuously improve its performance as on the technology itself.

I believe simulation technologies are going to change the way we educate and train the workforce, particularly in the area of social skills. In time, just as a pilot shouldn’t fly without practicing in a simulator first, managers and leaders will routinely practice with virtual humans for the challenging situation they’re sure to encounter.

80-Orli-BelmanRandall W. Hill, Jr., is the executive director of the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies and an expert in how virtual reality and video games can be used to develop effective learning experiences. He is also a research professor of computer science at USC

High Commitment, High Performance Management – by Martha Lagace


“High commitment, high performance (HCHP) companies are firms designed and led by their founders or by transformational CEOs—those who take charge of a company in a crisis—to achieve sustained high commitment from all stakeholders: employees, customers, investors, and community,” says Beer. “These firms stand out by having achieved long periods of excellence.”

HCHP stalwarts include Southwest, Johnson & Johnson, Hewlett Packard for six decades, Nucor Steel, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and Toyota, says Beer. Yet any company can change for the better, no matter the industry. GE, Becton Dickinson, Campbell Soup, IBM, and ASDA, a U.K. grocery chain, are examples of companies that were transformed by new CEOs taking charge, usually in times of crisis. These CEOs employed change strategies that focused on both commitment and performance. As ASDA’s CEO, Archie Norman, tells it, the new leader has to set a general direction, but must listen and engage people to identify and solve problems. Top-down leadership, he argues, will not work.

“This list is illustrative and by no means inclusive. The majority of companies do not, however, fall into the HCHP camp. Despite many differences in industry, products, and strategy, the companies and their leaders employ common principles and values,” says Beer.

For our email Q&A he discusses what it takes to build a high commitment, high performance company.

Martha Lagace: What differentiates HCHP firms and their leaders?

Michael Beer: The leaders manage with a multiple stakeholder perspective. Contrary to many CEOs, HCHP leaders—with support from their boards—define firm purpose as much more than shareholder value, though they all understand profit as an essential outcome.

HCHP firms are able to show sustained performance because they achieve the following three paradoxical goals:

  1. Performance alignment: Managing with their head, leaders develop an organizational design, business processes, goals, and measures, and capabilities that are aligned with a focused, winning strategy.
  2. Psychological alignment: Managing with their heart, leaders create a firm that provides employees at all levels with a sense of higher purpose, meaning, challenging work, and the capacity to make a difference, something that people desperately need and want but often do not get in organizational life. To accomplish this, HCHP firms establish and institutionalize human resource management policies and practices that look fairly similar.
  3. Capacity for learning and change: By keeping their egos in check, leaders of HCHP firms are able to avoid defensiveness and resulting blindness. HCHP firms institutionalize what I call Learning and Governance Systems, a means for having honest, collective, and public conversations with key people at lower levels about what stands in the way of success.

Why do firms need a learning and governance system? Performance and psychological alignment that works for a period of time—sometimes many years—can create rigidities that require challenges. In the book I discuss what leaders must do, be, and know to lead a collective process of learning, and I provide specifications for a Learning and Governance System that can help leaders avoid destruction, their own or their firm.

These three goals are paradoxical. That is, leaders who focus on one often undermine the others. Consider how hardheaded performance alignment can undermine psychological alignment and commitment if the process is too top-down. Or consider how achieving high levels of dedication to the firm (a strong culture) can easily slip into an attitude that resists change. Only if learning and change become an equally valued outcome can the status quo be challenged.

Q: How can companies stand the test of time?

A: Leaders must make conscious, principled choices. Such principled choices define a firm’s character. They are:

  1. Purpose: It defines the firm’s contribution to customers, employees, investors, community, and society, not only increasing stock price.
  2. Strategy: HCHP firms must fashion a distinctive and focused winning strategy to stick with through good times and bad regardless of attractive opportunities outside their field, though clearly adaptations of the strategy will be needed. HCHP firms are clear about who they are and committed to preserving their identity in the eyes of customers and employees. They know who they will not serve, businesses they will not be in, and activities they will not engage. They do not pursue profit for its own sake if it means getting into areas that are outside their defined distinctive capabilities. The disaster on Wall Street in 2008-2009 at firms like Merrill Lynch can in part be explained by the pursuit of profits for their own sake. HCHP firms, by contrast, grow by using their distinctive capabilities to move into adjacent markets, products and services, and geographies.
  3. Risk: HCHP firms avoid undue financial or cultural risk that could destroy the firm, though they do take bold business initiatives. Some firms like Southwest have no long term debt. Southwest self-financed because to grow too quickly would have undermined their ability to hire employees who fit Southwest’s collaborative values and culture. HCHP companies also manage acquisitions carefully. When they do make acquisitions they work hard at integrating the acquired company’s people into their culture. Consider how Hewlett Packard’s 1999 acquisition of Compaq undermined HP’s HCHP culture.
  4. Motivation: How people will be managed has to be a conscious choice. Leaders need to examine their assumptions about people: Do leaders assume employees want to be involved and make a contribution, or are they negative and assume that people only work for money and do the least they can get away with?

Q: If HCHP firms are desirable, why are there so few? What are some of the “undiscussible” fault lines you have identified?

A: Poor leadership and management stands in the way. These may arise because of ineffective leaders and flawed values, but they can also develop when historic leadership and management practices no longer align with newly emerging circumstances.

In the last twenty years my colleagues at TruePoint and I have asked leadership teams to define a strategic direction (business strategy and values) and then commission a task force of their best performers one to two levels below them to interview 100 key people in all parts of the organization about the strengths of and barriers to commitment and performance. These task forces are clearly instructed by the CEO or business unit manager (depending on the level of the organization in which this process is applied) to bring back the truth. Everyone in the organization is told about the inquiry—it is public—and asked to be honest. This process is later adopted by a number of organizations as their ongoing learning and governance process.

Our analysis of what dozens of task forces from underperforming organizations has shown is the same single strength, “our people,” and the same six “silent barriers” or silent killers. We call them silent killers because while everyone knows about them and they are discussed in private where it is safe, they are not discussible publicly with senior management.

The fact that a company’s people are seen as a universal strength suggests that the primary barrier to effectiveness, commitment, and performance is the system and the management, one unable to unleash people’s energy and align them with purpose and strategy.

Q: What are the six barriers?

A: The six silent barriers are:

  1. Unclear strategy, priorities, and values.
  2. A CEO or business unit leader who is too top-down or laissez faire in his or her approach to leading. They do not engage people in a way that allows an honest problem-solving dialogue.
  3. An ineffective leadership team (the team does not work as a unit and spends time on administrative matters and reviewing financial results instead of confronting strategic, organizational, and people issues and priorities.
  4. Poor coordination and collaboration between key value-creating activities, preventing effective execution.
  5. Inadequate leadership development.
  6. Closed vertical communication: Lower levels have not been communicated with about values, strategy, and priorities sufficiently and often in person. And equally important, organizational silence prevails about barriers to effectiveness, commitment, and performance. This barrier makes the silent killers self-sealing and unchangeable.

Q: The economic crisis of 2008-2009 has shown that companies make mistakes that derail and even destroy them. How can companies sustain commitment and performance in this environment?

A: Clearly the 2008-2009 economic crisis has some macroeconomic causes. But it can just as easily be explained by the approach to organizing and managing that many banks and mortgage and automobile companies employed—approaches that are diametrically opposite to those outlined in my book and discussed here. These firms did dumb things because their leaders did not make the principled choices outlined above.

Probably most important, CEOs or their boards did not want to know the truth nor did they develop the type of learning and governance processes that would have enabled truth to speak to power. Journalistic accounts and interviews with current or past employees of companies like Merrill Lynch and Washington Mutual, for example, make it clear that people in the middle and lower levels of these firms knew that bad loans were being made and that these would lead to the defaults we have seen. Some tried to tell upper management but were beaten down and eventually fired.

This does not happen in HCHP firms because the culture is more open. A disciplined, institutionalized process that allows examination of the whole system is essential. Even in HCHP companies, the capacity to learn and change through honest, collective, and public conversations is not as robust as the other pillars, performance alignment and psychological alignment.

Speaking up to CEOs and boards of directors is hard but ultimately the only path to sustained commitment and performance. Human nature is such that we do not want to know the truth, and lower levels are afraid to speak truth to power due to fear, and experiences that tell them nothing will change. Our tendency to be overprotective of people also causes us to avoid giving feedback to top management.

Q: What kind of leadership is necessary for a HCHP firm?

A: Leaders must have HCHP vision and values (empowerment, collaboration, maintaining firm identity, learning, humility, and a non-heroic approach to their job) and must be able to confront conflict. They see their job as stewards of the institution and want to leave a positive legacy.

It is hard work to build a HCHP firm and sustain it over time: Leaders take on the challenge because they see their goal as more than quarterly profits. Yet they understand the importance of profits to long term success.

HCHP leaders embrace the paradox inherent in tough business- and profit-oriented decisions on the one hand and developing an institution that cares about people and allows them to develop and exercise their unique gifts on the other. They inspire people by holding out the potential for creating a better organization and world.

Q: Your vision is very ambitious. What change strategy do you recommend?

A: Transforming an underperforming company into a HCHP organization is a challenge but well worth the prize. It takes will but also a great deal of skill. Here are some essential elements in a change strategy:

  • Embrace “the” and “also.” Leaders must embrace the paradox of people and profits. They must improve profits, of course, yet be consistent with the values and precepts discussed above. The process cannot be top down, though the direction can only come from the top.
  • Develop a leadership team that embraces the values and perspective discussed here. If that means moving people out and replacing them, that must be done. Engage the leadership team in a discussion of purpose, mission, values, strategy, and the approach they will take to motivate people. The top team ideally spends time discussing the legacy they want to leave: This develops the sense of long term purpose required for a successful journey to HCHP.
  • Engage key people below the leadership team. Ask them if the new direction makes sense and about the strengths and barriers in the organization to achieving that direction.
  • Put together a set of corporate change initiatives to transform the company. In my book I identify levers of change that through experience and research I have found are typically addressed by leaders to achieve performance alignment, psychological alignment, and the capacity for ongoing learning and change. These include a learning and governance process discussed earlier; a strategic performance management process by which the senior team sets strategy and goals, develops strategic initiatives, and reallocates human and financial resources as needed; an organizational design that enables coordination; and human resource management policies and practices to enhance competence and commitment and develop a community of purpose. In particular, leadership must enable the development of the next generation of leaders: employees who share the values underlying the transformation and will carry on the journey to HCHP after current leaders have left the scene.
  • Recognize that HCHP transformations are a unit by unit process, and must occur at the corporate as well as the business, regional, and operating unit level.
  • Avoid the fallacy of programmatic change, running tens of thousands of people through education aimed at changing their attitudes and behavior. Change must be led by local leaders and involve people in shaping their own destiny. Corporate staff groups can support it, but it is the act of leading change that both develops leaders and the HCHP culture.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My colleagues at the TruePoint Center for High Commitment and Performance, a not for profit research and education institute, and I are engaged in a study of HCHP leaders. We want to understand HCHP leadership through their own experience. What is the source of their commitment to building a HCHP company and how do they describe the transformation journey they are leading? We are analyzing the data from these interviews and plan to write a book tentatively titled True Leaders: Lessons from Companies Who Create Both Wealth and Worth. Our article “The Uncompromising Leader” in the July 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review reported our early findings.


Martha Lagace is the senior editor of HBS Working Knowledge.

Why leadership-development programs fail – by Pierre Gurdjian, Thomas Halbeisen, and Kevin Lane

For years, organizations have lavished time and money on improving the capabilities of managers and on nurturing new leaders. US companies alone spend almost $14 billion annually on leadership development.1 Colleges and universities offer hundreds of degree courses on leadership, and the cost of customized leadership-development offerings from a top business school can reach $150,000 a person.

Moreover, when upward of 500 executives were asked to rank their top three human-capital priorities, leadership development was included as both a current and a future priority. Almost two-thirds of the respondents identified leadership development as their number-one concern.2 Only 7 percent of senior managers polled by a UK business school think that their companies develop global leaders effectively,3 and around 30 percent of US companies admit that they have failed to exploit their international business opportunities fully because they lack enough leaders with the right capabilities.4

We’ve talked with hundreds of chief executives about the struggle, observing both successful initiatives and ones that run into the sand. In the process, we’ve identified four of the most common mistakes. Here we explain some tips to overcome them. Together, they suggest ways for companies to get more from their leadership-development efforts—and ultimately their leaders—as these organizations face challenges ranging from the next demanding phase of globalization to disruptive technological change and continued macroeconomic uncertainty.

1. Overlooking context

Context is a critical component of successful leadership. A brilliant leader in one situation does not necessarily perform well in another. Academic studies have shown this, and our experience bears it out. The CEO of a large European services business we know had an outstanding record when markets were growing quickly, but he failed to provide clear direction or to impose financial discipline on the group’s business units during the most recent economic downturn. Instead, he continued to encourage innovation and new thinking—hallmarks of the culture that had previously brought success—until he was finally replaced for underperformance.

Too many training initiatives we come across rest on the assumption that one size fits all and that the same group of skills or style of leadership is appropriate regardless of strategy, organizational culture, or CEO mandate.

In the earliest stages of planning a leadership initiative, companies should ask themselves a simple question: what, precisely, is this program for? If the answer is to support an acquisition-led growth strategy, for example, the company will probably need leaders brimming with ideas and capable of devising winning strategies for new or newly expanded business units. If the answer is to grow by capturing organic opportunities, the company will probably want people at the top who are good at nurturing internal talent.

Focusing on context inevitably means equipping leaders with a small number of competencies (two to three) that will make a significant difference to performance. Instead, what we often find is a long list of leadership standards, a complex web of dozens of competencies, and corporate-values statements. Each is usually summarized in a seemingly easy-to-remember way (such as the three Rs), and each on its own terms makes sense. In practice, however, what managers and employees often see is an “alphabet soup” of recommendations. We have found that when a company cuts through the noise to identify a small number of leadership capabilities essential for success in its business—such as high-quality decision making or stronger coaching skills—it achieves far better outcomes.

In the case of a European retail bank that was anxious to improve its sales performance, the skill that mattered most (but was in shortest supply) was the ability to persuade and motivate peers without the formal authority of direct line management. This art of influencing others outside formal reporting lines runs counter to the rigid structures of many organizations. In this company, it was critical for the sales managers to persuade the IT department to change systems and working approaches that were burdening the sales organization’s managers, whose time was desperately needed to introduce important sales-acceleration measures. When managers were able to focus on changing the systems and working approaches, the bank’s productivity rose by 15 percent.

Context is as important for groups and individuals as it is for organizations as a whole: the best programs explicitly tailor a “from–to” path for each participant. An Asian engineering and construction company, for example, was anticipating the need for a new cadre of skilled managers to run complex multiyear projects of $1 billion or more. To meet this challenge, it established a leadership factory to train 1,000 new leaders within three years.

The company identified three important leadership transitions. The first took experts at tendering (then reactive and focused on meeting budget targets) and sought to turn them into business builders who proactively hunted out customers and thought more strategically about markets. The second took project executors who spent the bulk of their time on site dealing with day-to-day problems and turned them into project directors who could manage relationships with governments, joint-venture partners, and important customers. The third targeted support-function managers who narrowly focused on operational details and costs, and set out to transform them into leaders with a broader range of skills to identify—and deliver—more significant contributions to the business.

2. Decoupling reflection from real work

When it comes to planning the program’s curriculum, companies face a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, there is value in off-site programs (many in university-like settings) that offer participants time to step back and escape the pressing demands of a day job. On the other hand, even after very basic training sessions, adults typically retain just 10 percent of what they hear in classroom lectures, versus nearly two-thirds when they learn by doing. Furthermore, burgeoning leaders, no matter how talented, often struggle to transfer even their most powerful off-site experiences into changed behavior on the front line.

The answer sounds straightforward: tie leadership development to real on-the-job projects that have a business impact and improve learning. But it’s not easy to create opportunities that simultaneously address high-priority needs—say, accelerating a new-product launch, turning around a sales region, negotiating an external partnership, or developing a new digital-marketing strategy—and provide personal-development opportunities for the participants.

A medical-device company got this balance badly wrong when one of its employees, a participant in a leadership-development program, devoted long hours over several months to what he considered “real” work: creating a device to assist elderly people during a medical emergency. When he presented his assessment to the board, he was told that a full-time team had been working on exactly this challenge and that the directors would never consider a solution that was a by-product of a leadership-development program. Given the demotivating effect of this message, the employee soon left the company.

By contrast, one large international engineering and construction player built a multiyear leadership program that not only accelerated the personal-development paths of 300 midlevel leaders but also ensured that projects were delivered on time and on budget. Each participant chose a separate project: one business-unit leader, for instance, committed his team to developing new orders with a key client and to working on a new contract that would span more than one of the group’s business lines. These projects were linked to specified changes in individual behavior—for instance, overcoming inhibitions in dealing with senior clients or providing better coaching for subordinates. By the end of the program, the business-unit head was in advanced negotiations on three new opportunities involving two of the group’s business lines. Feedback demonstrated that he was now behaving like a group representative rather than someone defending the narrow interest of his own business unit.

The ability to push training participants to reflect, while also giving them real work experiences to apply new approaches and hone their skills, is a valuable combination in emerging markets. There, the gap between urgent “must do” projects and the availability of capable leaders presents an enormous challenge. In such environments, companies should strive to make every major business project a leadership-development opportunity as well, and to integrate leadership-development components into the projects themselves.

3. Underestimating mind-sets

Becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behavior. But although most companies recognize that this also means adjusting underlying mind-sets, too often these organizations are reluctant to address the root causes of why leaders act the way they do. Doing so can be uncomfortable for participants, program trainers, mentors, and bosses—but if there isn’t a significant degree of discomfort, the chances are that the behavior won’t change. Just as a coach would view an athlete’s muscle pain as a proper response to training, leaders who are stretching themselves should also feel some discomfort as they struggle to reach new levels of leadership performance.

Identifying some of the deepest, “below the surface” thoughts, feelings, assumptions, and beliefs is usually a precondition of behavioral change—one too often shirked in development programs. Promoting the virtues of delegation and empowerment, for example, is fine in theory, but successful adoption is unlikely if the program participants have a clear “controlling” mind-set (I can’t lose my grip on the business; I’m personally accountable and only I should make the decisions). It’s true that some personality traits (such as extroversion or introversion) are difficult to shift, but people can change the way they see the world and their values.

Take the professional-services business that wanted senior leaders to initiate more provocative and meaningful discussions with the firm’s senior clients. Once the trainers looked below the surface, they discovered that these leaders, though highly successful in their fields, were instinctively uncomfortable and lacking in confidence when conversations moved beyond their narrow functional expertise. As soon as the leaders realized this, and went deeper to understand why, they were able to commit themselves to concrete steps that helped push them to change.

A major European industrial company, meanwhile, initially met strong resistance after launching an initiative to delegate and decentralize responsibility for capital expenditures and resource allocation to the plant level. Once the issues were put on the table, it became clear that the business-unit leaders were genuinely concerned that the new policy would add to the already severe pressures they faced, that they did not trust their subordinates, and that they resented the idea of relinquishing control. Only when they were convinced that the new approach would actually save time and serve as a great learning opportunity for more junior managers—and when more open-minded colleagues and mentors helped challenge the “heroic” leadership model—did the original barriers start to come down and decentralization start to be implemented.

Another company decided that difficult market conditions required its senior sales managers to get smarter about how they identified, valued, and negotiated potential deals. However, sending them on a routine finance course failed to prompt the necessary changes. The sales managers continued to enter into suboptimal and even uneconomic transactions because they had a deeply held mind-set that the only thing that mattered in their industry was market share, that revenue targets had to be met, and that failing to meet those targets would result in their losing face. This mind-set shifted only when the company set up a “control tower” for reflecting on the most critical deals, when peers who got the new message became involved in the coaching, and when the CEO offered direct feedback to participants (including personal calls to sales managers) applauding the new behavior.

4. Failing to measure results

We frequently find that companies pay lip service to the importance of developing leadership skills but have no evidence to quantify the value of their investment. When businesses fail to track and measure changes in leadership performance over time, they increase the odds that improvement initiatives won’t be taken seriously.

Too often, any evaluation of leadership development begins and ends with participant feedback; the danger here is that trainers learn to game the system and deliver a syllabus that is more pleasing than challenging to participants. Yet targets can be set and their achievement monitored. Just as in any business-performance program, once that assessment is complete, leaders can learn from successes and failures over time and make the necessary adjustments.

One approach is to assess the extent of behavioral change, perhaps through a 360 degree–feedback exercise at the beginning of a program and followed by another one after 6 to 12 months. Leaders can also use such tools to demonstrate their own commitment to real change for themselves and the organization. One CEO we know commissioned his own 360 degree–feedback exercise and published the results (good and bad) for all to see on the company intranet, along with a personal commitment to improve.

Another approach is to monitor participants’ career development after the training. How many were appointed to more senior roles one to two years after the program? How many senior people in the organization went through leadership training? How many left the company? By analyzing recent promotions at a global bank, for example, senior managers showed that candidates who had been through a leadership-development program were more successful than those who had not.

Finally, try to monitor the business impact, especially when training is tied to breakthrough projects. Metrics might include cost savings and the number of new-store openings for a retail business, for example, or sales of new products if the program focused on the skills to build a new-product strategy. American Express quantifies the success of some of its leadership programs by comparing the average productivity of participants’ teams prior to and after a training program, yielding a simple measure of increased productivity. Similarly, a nonprofit we know recently sought to identify the revenue increase attributable to its leadership program by comparing one group that had received training with another that hadn’t.

Companies can avoid the most common mistakes in leadership development and increase the odds of success by matching specific leadership skills and traits to the context at hand; embedding leadership development in real work; fearlessly investigating the mind-sets that underpin behavior; and monitoring the impact so as to make improvements over time.

About the authors

Pierre Gurdjian is a director in McKinsey’s Brussels office; Thomas Halbeisen is an associate principal in the Zurich office, where Kevin Lane is a principal.

The authors wish to thank Nate Boaz, Claudio Feser, and Florian Pollner for their contributions to this article.

Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are

“Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success.” Ted.com website

An amazing speech! Don’t miss the ending!