Show & Tell and Social Learning Theory at Work


Even as adults we learn by show and tellIf you’re looking for a way to quickly bring new managers and leaders up to speed, psychologists say you might find inspiration in a surprising place. In fact, they suggest that you take a page from the pre-school playbook, and implement a version of Show & Tell in the workplace.

You remember Show and Tell? Where kids proudly hold out something to their peers for observation and then explain why it matters? Its a form of exposing kids to new ideas and sharing learning, and it turns out the principles translate into the work world. Observing and sharing is how we learn.

Last year, an article published in the Journal of Applied Psychology drew a parallel between Show and Tell and transitioning new leaders into their roles successfully. The study, entitled “Show and Tell: How Supervisors Facilitate Leader Development Among Transitioning Leaders,” highlights how important it is to provide good role models to new leaders.  We show new managers how great leaders lead, says the study, and we also tell them the information they need to do their jobs effectively.

The research proved that new leaders orient more quickly and are more successful when they have a supervisor who models effective leadership behaviors for them, and who readily communicates job information to them. With the ability to observe good leadership, participants reported an increased sense of knowledge acquisition. And “this upward trajectory [was] even more pronounced for transitioning leaders who have not been exposed to an exceptional leader during their careers,” said study authors.

Stop for a moment and think about that. How difficult would it be to become a good manager (never mind a great one) if you’ve NEVER been exposed to an exceptional manager in your career?

And yet we ask managers to do this all the time. No number of leadership books and videos can help us to create good managers if we don’t have the ability to directly expose them to those who do it well. Except, we don’t always have enough exceptional leaders to go around.

But what if we could indirectly expose our managers to those exceptional leaders, even when they are in other groups? What if we can broadcast the successes of those managers into the culture and reward them for their great leadership, while at the same time exposing our new managers to their techniques?

Well, it turns out that kind of approach can be just as effective.

The psychology that underlies this principle is something called “Social Learning Theory”. It was explored by Albert Bandura in the sixties and seventies, and basically shows that we learn by observing those around us, and then modeling our own behavior on what we’ve seen.

In social learning theory there are four requirements for learning:

  1. Observation/attention – You must have an opportunity to observe the event.
  2. Retention – The event must be memorable
  3. Reproduction – You must be able to recreate the event.
  4. Motivation – You should want to reproduce, and find satisfaction in reproducing, the event.

It is important therefore, if you desire your employees to reproduce a behavior, that you make the original behavior:

  1. Public within your organization (best achieved with a social feed or network)
  2. Specific and told as a story to increase memorability
  3. Aligned to values, so that other employees understand how to embody it
  4. Positively reinforced and rewarded, to encourage others to follow suit

Social learning theory is different than simple stimuli/response cognitive learning because it happens whether you plan it or not. In other words, we can learn in a social context without any kind of direct instruction or reinforcement. And according to the theory: “learning also occurs through the observation of rewards and punishments, a process known as vicarious reinforcement.”

In other words, simply seeing what behavior others are being rewarded for can impact your own learning and behavior.

This is incredibly important in the world of social recognition, because what it means is that every recognition moment—every piece of positive feedback—is not only reinforcing that employee, but is also teaching your other employees how to do their jobs more effectively. This is the psychological principle that really makes our social feed so powerful.

This segues with the work of scholars like Barbara Fredrickson and Jonathan Haidt, who have shown that merely witnessing one person express gratitude to another can produce feelings of elation, and a desire to perform helpful acts, oneself.

Show and tell is the perfect metaphor for the right kind of recognition. We tell employees what matters by showing them who is awarded for what behavior. We show employees that we value their contribution by recognizing them, and tell other employees about it by sharing the stories on your internal social feed, thereby showing employees what great performance (and in the case of managers, great leadership) looks like.

The ripple effect of social learning that this short of show and tell creates results will be invaluable for your culture and the quality of your leadership.


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