There are a couple of interesting stories often used in leadership programs to illustrate how learned behaviour can affect growth and development, and especially one’s capacity to be bold and take risks. One story describes how grasshoppers are allegedly trained. Catch a grasshopper and put it in a jar with a lid. Of course it will do what a grasshopper does – it jumps and “clank” – hits its head on the lid. It does it again and, you guessed it, “clank” – it hits its head again. Ouch! However, on the next jump there is no “clank” as the grasshopper has now determined exactly where the lid is and manages the height of his jump perfectly so he doesn’t quite hit it. Avoiding the “clank” continues the rest of the time the grasshopper is in the jar. Apparently, at this point you can take the lid off and the grasshopper will not escape as he has managed to learn how to be in the jar as if the lid was still on. I have never tried this (although I will one day if I ever happen to be outside in my lawn with a jar) so I can’t validate how factual this is, however, I do like how it illustrates what I call “learned” behaviour.
The second story told has to do with how young elephants in the circus are contained. When they are very young, their back leg is tied using a rope attached to a peg driven in the ground. Of course, being small, they cannot actually get their leg free and after endless trials they eventually give up. Apparently, this practice continues until they are a fully grown adult where they could easily pull the peg out of the ground and free their leg, but they don’t even try. They have learned that it was futile in their younger years and never challenge it later on.
So, why am I sharing these stories with you? I was just recently conducting a leadership program with a group of executive leaders from a large transportation company who exhibited the stunting effect of learned behaviour. While very capable and smart as individuals, and free thinking and even bold together as a group, it seemed every time they engaged with an outside ‘expert’ or their senior management team members, they became noticeably more passive and compliant. Where did the boldness and free thinking go? How come they almost instantly became meek and passive? What is more disturbing is that they were completely unaware that this was even happening and that they had, for whatever reason, “learned” to behave this way. Their legs were still tied to a peg they could easily dislodge and they were jumping just high enough without hitting their heads on the jar lid. We can hypothesize why this is the case. One explanation might be that most of these executives have been with the company for several years, entire careers in some cases, and have grown up “learning” how to be in the risk adverse and compliant culture that has been the hallmark of this company. Another reason might be that their current CEO is so strong and forceful (which he is) and that he alone had defined the parameters of acceptable behaviour with his senior team and beyond. I would have to do more thorough culture diagnosis to ferret out the causes but, be that as it may, it was the strong prevalent reality for this group.
Fortunately, with some strong objective feedback given to them by their external coaches on what was observed, by the end of the program the group was showing signs of being able to jump out of the jar and pull their leg free in front of the senior executive team – exactly the kind of leadership behaviour the CEO is calling for to take the company to a new level of customer-centricity, innovation and ultimately higher performance.