Leading like a Teacher V: Develop Mastery

August 2, 2018

Why is he still not able to do that right? He has had all the training he needed!

Tasks that seem obvious and easy to team leaders, may involve a complex combination of skills. For an experience driver, driving a car is automatic and effortless. But for a new driver it can be an overwhelming experience.

Knowing how to help team members develop mastery is a great skill for leader to have. Especially for new team members or when moving into a new role - this skill helps integrate those team members quickly - and get them to productivity quickly.

Mastery refers to the attainment of a high degree of competence within a particular area (Ambrose et al.). This can include skills (knowing how to use certain software), to content knowledge (features of our product) to extensive knowledge within a complex disciplinary domain (thermodynamics, programming language, or insurance compliance law). To achieve mastery in a domain, they need to develop a set of component skills, practice them to the point where they can be combined fluently and used with a fair degree of automaticity, and know when and where to apply them appropriately (Ambrose & all).


You might expect leaders who master a certain domain would be great teacher of it. But his is not necessarily the case. This is because experts are unconsciously competence. They may need even know how they do what they do - they just do it. When mastering a domain, team members go from not knowing their incompetence, to becoming aware of it, to developing the competence, to automatic competence.


Novices don't know what they don't know. As they become more knowledgable they are increasingly aware of what they don't know. Further along in the process, they develop mastery - but still need to consciously act and think when performing the task. Finally, the skill has become so automatic and instinctively that they don't even know what they know or do.

The reason for becoming unconsciously competence lies in the efficiency of the brain and knowledge organization. Experts have a vastly more knowledge, but also organize it in different ways (see knowledge organization). For instance, experts organize knowledge in large chunks that allow them to access and apply that knowledge with facility (Chase & Simon, 1973b). Moreover, because experts immediately recognize meaningful patterns and configurations based on their previous experiences, they are able to employ shortcuts and skip steps that novices cannot (DeGroot, 1965). Finally, experts link specific information to deeper principles and schemas and are consequently better able than novices to transfer their knowledge across contexts in which those principles apply (Chi, Feltovich, & Glaser, 1981).

This can make it difficult for leaders to teach. Their knowledge organization may be too complex for new team members, and need to be broken down into smaller and simpler components first. Second, the use of short cuts might lead to skip important steps that should be taught. Finally, the leaders efficiency may lead to underestimating the time it take to complete tasks and the ability of team members to apply the knowledge across contexts.

When leaders are blind to the learning needs of novice team members, it is called the expert blindspot (Nickerson, 1999). Consider how master chefs might instruct novice cooks to "saute the vegetable until they are done', 'cook until the sauce is a good consistency" (Amborse et al.). Novices might not have a clue what 'done' or 'consistency' means - while it is crystal clear to the chef.

To overcome the expert blindspot, leaders should be aware of how mastery is developed through three elements: (1) the acquisition of component skills, (2) practice in integrating them effectively, (3) knowledge of when to apply what they have learned.

Component skills

Learning how to solve a customer support problem involves a sequence of component skills such as asking the right questions, responding to the customer emotions, identifying the problem, determining the solution and guiding the customer toward the solution. If team members lack critical component skills - or if their command of those skills is weak - the performance of the overall task suffers (Resnick, 1976). If the customer support rep doesn't ask the right questions, the problem won't get identified and the overall performance won't be good.

In order to teach complex skills - without missing pieces - leader must be able to unpack or decompose complex tasks (Ambrose et al.). Leaders have the choice to teach the skill in isolation or in context of the overall task. Teaching skills in isolation (outside of the overall task context) has the advantage that team members can concentrate on mastering the specific component. Teaching in context of the task however helps team members better see how and when to apply the skill and how the parts with in the whole - which can lead to better retention, higher motivation and better transfer. Overall learning in context is preferable, unless a skill component is very complex, in which case isolating the learning might be more effective.  


Mastery requires component skills and the ability to integrate them successfully. It also requires to know when and where to use what was learned (Ambrose, et al.). Off the job training often faces the challenge that participants come back to work and don't apply what was learned in the class room. The application of skills learning in one context to another context is referred to as transfer. Transfer often fails because (1) the learning was context dependent - they associate the knowledge too closely to the context in which it was learned, (2) they lack the underlying principles and deep structure - in other words they understand what to do but not why.

Studies show that when learners understand the principles (the why) behind a skill or situation, they significantly outperform those who do not. Structured comparison - in which learners compare and contrast different problem, cases or scenarios - has also shown to facilitate transfer (Loewenstein et al., 2003). For instance, comparing two sales proposals, two the customer problems, or two marketing campaigns forces learners to recognize and identify the deep features of each case and underlying principles.


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