Leadership Skills and the Forgetting Curve

Last Updated: Jan 13, 2021 | Executive Coaching, Leadership

Remember that leadership skills seminar you attended 14 months ago? Of course not! Sure, you remember bits and pieces of it, and perhaps part of an exercise you did. And somewhere in your office you have a binder with handouts and worksheets. But mostly, it’s gone from your memory.

One time trainings are rarely enough to make a meaningful, long-term difference, regardless of the topic. One reason is something often referred to as the “forgetting curve.” The forgetting curve represents a rapid decline in memory retention when little or no effort is made to recall or apply the information. Some experts estimate that we lose as much as half of our memory of recently learned information in just a few days or weeks unless steps are taken to intentionally review the knowledge.

“This is why executive coaches engage their clients to develop an organized plan with multiple contacts over a period of time,” said Maren Perry, president of Arden Coaching, “and why structured training programs like Arden Coaching’s Leadership Academy — which pairs one-on-one coaching with group training — works with executives through a series of modules. The key is repetition and application.” 

Multiple touches and relevance generates results for the clients of executive coaches, and it can work for you. Here’s how.

The Secret of Learning: Focus, Review, and Apply

To begin, when you want to learn something new or change a behavior, gather your learning materials, design your learning plan, and place emphasis on concentrated effort to absorb and understand the information. Purposeful focus helps you start strong — flattening the initial slope of your forgetting curve.

Second, systematically return to your learning to review and re-examine the information. A sort of “wash-rinse-repeat” approach. You should review your learning when your recall has dropped, but don’t wait until you’ve forgotten so much that you are basically starting over again. After every review, your forgetting will begin again, but your memory will improve and you’ll forget less — and more slowly. Over time, your reviews can be spaced further apart. Sometimes, this is referred to as “spaced learning.”

Finally, it is absolutely essential that you apply your learning directly to your professional and/or personal life. If what you have learned is not relevant, if there’s no purpose, if the learning is not meaningful, then there’s no compelling reason for your brain to remember it. The more you apply something, the more your brain will recognize its significance and remember it.

Take These Next Steps

Imagine you wish to improve your ability to communicate — an essential leadership skill. For example, imagine you want to improve your listening skills. Arden Coaching coaches to a deeper level of listening, called “Level Three Listening.” Typical active listening (level two) usually focuses on what someone is saying. Level Three Listening includes how someone is saying something, and why, when, and where they are saying it.

Collect and organize your learning materials — readings, presentations, and exercises. Spend time on learning the information in a disciplined and undistracted manner.

Next, begin your wash-rinse-repeat process, regularly returning to your learning to review and refresh the information in your memory. Perhaps you review your Level Three Learning materials one week after your initial learning, then again three weeks later, then again five weeks later — stretching and flattening your forgetting curve and improving your memory.

From the start, seek to apply your learning to make it relevant and important to your memory. Look for opportunities to actively use your Level Three Listening practices in team meetings, one-on-one meetings with employees, and presentations to senior leaders.

While you can use these strategies to work on this yourself, an executive coach will effectively and expertly help you identify your goals, put a plan in place, and assure that your learning, review, and application are designed to achieve maximum results.

To learn more about how executive coaching can help you successfully build and improve your leadership skills, contact Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.

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