MANAGEMENT SKILL TRANSFERABILITY
Mental Imagery in management development
A promising method to limit the problem of skill transferability
Issue Date - 15/12/2011
Despite the presence of numerous leadership development programs, one of the most daunting tasks facing corporations is the transferability of skill. Mental imagery offers some hope.
A major problem with the development of managers or executives is the transfer of skills. This refers to how skills that are meant to be developed during training (that can, for example, stretch to two or three days in an executive development centre) are transferred in actual work activities. For instance, it is very usual for middle level managers to attend leadership training programs. Will these managers actually use what they have learnt in the leadership course to manage their subordinates or to deal with colleagues and superiors when they are back to their workplace? Unfortunately, the answer is not even halfheartedly positive. There are many reasons for not being able to apply theory in practice. But one of the major reasons is insufficient rehearsal of the behaviours (i.e. ways to act) we are supposed to learn during training in real situations. We consciously know what we must do, but we are not sufficiently familiar with the execution part of it. And when we return to work, we find that there is usually no opportunity for trials. Hence, we abandon the idea of using the new techniques and we revert back to the ways we, and the others (subordinates, colleagues, superiors), are comfortable with.
To provide an illustration, imagine someone learning to play tennis. This person goes to the tennis court, where trainers put up a very impressive PowerPoint presentation which talks about the art of playing tennis in detail (serve, left and right hand drive, feet motion and movement, ascending to the net et al). And this process is complimented brilliantly well linking it to the legacy of tennis champions. Does this mean that this individual now knows everything about tennis, and therefore can play tennis very well? To be more precise, the protagonist is physically fit and strong can he/she compete head on with a champion? Evidently no. After such a training course, it is unlikely that anyone will be able to gain even a single point against an average tennis player. The simple reason is that our aspiring tennis player may know tennis very well in theory, but has not had any opportunity to apply this knowledge to practice in a way that this becomes part of his or her unconscious repertoire of behaviours. On the other hand, it is very likely that our aspiring champion will score very well during theoretical evaluations. But in terms of applicability or transferability of skills, the course will certainly claim no laurels.
Our simplistic yet appropriate example illustrates the issue of ‘transferability of skills’. This problem is especially pronounced in management and executive development, mostly in the critical areas of leading and managing relationships with others. These are so called ‘soft’ skills – sometimes also referred to as ‘people’ or ‘interpersonal’ skills – where one, simply being consciously aware of what he or she must do is not sufficient for actually doing it well (in other terms, for achieving results). The reason there is a problem with transferability of training in the domain of ‘soft’ skills is that effective leadership or people management requires a consistent display of particular behaviours, ability to perceive others in certain ways, and interpersonal approaches that we may of but need substantial practice in order to display these in a natural and consistent manner. Successful interaction with others is a function of personality of the person and of others coupled with environmental constraints (for example, the culture of the organisation, the situation in which we are placed).
The ‘Mental Imagery’ technique offers promise in reducing the gap between what is learnt in leadership training and what is actually applied at the work place. Mental imagery training means that the individual ‘mentally’ or visually executes the patterns of behaviour he or she is meant to learn. This can be done as many times as it is needed, so it becomes “imprinted” into the repertoire of naturally executed behavioural patterns (behaviours we do not need to make any conscious calculation in order to execute). This means that conditions in the workplace pose much less of a difficulty for implementation of these behavioural patterns (talking in simple terms about our visions, being overtly encouraging to people), because acting in these ways is now part of our nature.
Mental imagery training in leadership has been inspired by the training of athletes. Experiments have shown that for the brain, there is no difference between physically performing an act and thinking of performing it under conditions of strong concentration (this means strong involvement of emotion and senses as well). A dramatic illustration of this phenomenon is the presence of scientific research which proves that thinking intensely about engaging in weight-lifting increases our muscle mass in the same way as actually lifting weights does!
Of course, the incorporation of mental imagery techniques in leadership training or in training for other ‘soft’ skills, requires careful design and adaptation of the learning material. It also requires very strong involvement from both the leadership coach as well as the executive. This is because the learner must be fully engrossed in the situation (cognitively, emotionally and sensually), in order to concentrate rigorously. Nevertheless, considering the shortage of leadership skills and the demand for such behavioural patter in today’s competitive environment, this technique promises to reduce the gap between training and transfer of skills acquired.