June 4, 2021

How Adults Learn: Common Pitfalls & Making New Skills “Stick”

Clinician Leadership | Leadership Development | Team Development

Reading Time: 2 minutes

It’s a common predicament: You attend a conference, watch an online course or spend time with a mentor, hear fascinating insights, take copious notes, and then… nothing.

By the time you’re back to work, the ideas you thought could catapult your impact on the job are fuzzy memories, trampled by daily responsibilities and relegated to your “someday” mental file. Before you know it, you’re back to old habits and challenges that hindered your progress in the past.

In reality, behavioral change — the kind that lasts and improves outcomes in sustainable ways — takes time. While it’s tempting to rush past the learning process, a disproportionate focus on quick wins can subvert long-term results. That’s precisely where many organizations go wrong with leadership development, reaping little to no return for their efforts.

Getting Past “The Forgetting Curve”

In the late 19th century, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus pioneered experimental memory studies, culminating with this discovery of “The Forgetting Curve.” Ebbinghaus showed that if new information isn’t applied, we’ll forget about 75% of it after just six days.

Put simply, it’s a matter of “use it or lose it” for leaders looking to enhance their knowledge, attitudes and impact.

What to do, then? Steve Glaveski, a corporate innovation consultant, explains we’re learning at the wrong time: “People learn best when they have to learn,” he writes in the Harvard Business Review. In a practical sense, that means we only retain lessons we apply to real-world situations using spaced repetition.

Learning over time “takes advantage of the psychological spacing effect, which demonstrates a strong link between the periodic exposure to information and retention,” Glaveski continues. “Studies show that by using spaced repetition, we can remember about 80% of what we learn after 60 days — a significant improvement.”

More than a good idea, it’s a biological reality.

More than a good idea, this learning dynamic is a biological reality we’ve ignored too long in professional development, Glaveski argues.

This biological reality is why exposure to executive coaching should be a “a required component of senior leader development,” advocates Roberta Sonnino, a physician writing for the Journal of Healthcare Leadership. Sonnino calls executive coaching the “ultimate example of sustained support,” where learning is reinforced and becomes embedded as participants apply what they learned as real-life issues arise.

Researchers in a pilot study on the delayed effects of leadership coaching agree, explaining that learning requires a period of incubation or a triggering event before it manifests in behavior.

“Initial evidence now exists to show that [coaching clients] require time to clarify, consolidate and enact personal learning facilitated during coaching,” they write in a piece published in Coaching: International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice.

Putting this knowledge into practice

What would this approach to skills development look like into practice?

We invite you to download a complimentary resource where we expand on these concepts, drawing from reputable studies and our experience in coaching healthcare leaders and teams. We’ll also cover related topics, including:

  • Essential leadership traits in healthcare
  • Why coach high performers
  • Reprogramming one’s auto pilot
  • Transactional vs Transformational coaching approaches
  • Discerning coach/client roles for lasting transformation
    … and more.

>> Get it here.


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About the author

Lee Angus

Lee Angus is the president of MEDI Leadership, an executive coaching firm which focuses solely on leadership development in the healthcare industry. Lee has nearly twenty-five years of consulting and coaching experience, with sixteen of those years being work with Healthcare Administrative and Physician Executives.

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