One of the approaches I regularly use on my blog is taking seemingly unrelated topics to the field of leadership to help illustrate some ideas that would help leaders become better enablers for those under their stewardship. In this piece, I’d like to share a new discovery regarding how bats communicate and its connection to how leaders should develop their employees’ skills.
A recent study by scientists in Australia has revealed that bats living in different regions of that country have distinctive regional calls or dialects. These calls are used by bats to help them navigate and hunt through a process called echolocation – where high frequency sounds are sent out and bounce back to the bat providing them with information on what lies ahead.
The idea that bats communicate in regional dialects – a trait found also in human communication – spurred on a number of tangents in my mind about how leaders communicate with the various members of their team. To help bring one of these ideas into sharper focus, I’d like to briefly discuss the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition.
Basically, the Dreyfus model breaks down the process of how we develop new skills through instruction and practice into five stages:
The novice stage is identified as being when our focus is on following the rules and when we lack the ability to perceive our actions beyond their main function. At the novice stage, we not only need direct supervision, but it’s also what we desire in order to ensure that we’re performing at the expected level.
2. Advanced beginner
At the advanced beginner stage, we begin to understand the role our actions play in specific situations and as such, we’re able to exercise some judgement of what we should do beyond simply following the rules. However, we still require some supervision to help us stay on track in terms of the overall goal.
By this stage, we move past the application of certain rules for a particular situation, to viewing these rules as more of a guideline that helps to direct us in the proper direction. The use of skills at this stage is based more on our experiences and personal judgement than simply adhering to a given set of rules, thereby allowing us to be less dependent on outside supervision.
In the proficient stage, our skill and knowledge level allows us to take full responsibility for our work. At this stage, we can also appreciate the bigger picture, of how our efforts fit in and contribute to the collective effort.
When we reach the expert skill stage, much of what we do becomes intuitive and we’re driven to push past the status quo to discover better ways for doing things. At this point, not only can we see the big picture, but we’re able to conceptualize alternate possibilities or visions for what we can accomplish.
Now, returning back to the discovery of dialects in bat communication, scientists have pointed out that at the moment they’re not sure why these regional differences exist. However, one theory suggests that this is a result of what bats consume in these different areas. Specifically, given how in one region the bats eat mostly mosquitoes, while in the other region the bats consume moths as their primary food source, it’s only natural that they’d use different sounds to locate their respective prey.
In other words, as a result of their different needs and conditions, the bats in these different regions end up communicating in a distinctive manner, even though they’re both trying to accomplish the same thing – using their calls to guide them around their habitat to locate prey.
Similarly, if we look at the Dreyfus model, we can see that what your employees require to perform their duties will vary based on their abilities and experience. As such, while your team members are all working toward accomplishing the same goal, what they need to have communicated to them will depend on their needs as defined by the level of their skill acquisition.
Now as we all know, one of the cardinal sins of leadership is micro-managing your team. However, we must be mindful in recognizing that micro-managing arises from a lack of trust in the abilities of those we lead, as opposed to a lack of understanding or familiarity with the specific needs of your team members.
For employees who are at the novice stage of skill acquisition, there should be no concern of micro-managing as their abilities require a leader to be more involved and hands-on. Similarly, it’s important to recognize that employees who have moved beyond the competent stage not only require less intervention, but would be of greater help to your organization if they were granted more responsibilities within your team.
Also, by being more aware of the variance of skill acquisition within their teams, leaders can also gain a better insight into who they should be guiding through the process of leadership development; of identifying those individuals who demonstrate the capability to create their own vision for their organization based on present and future trends, as opposed to simply maintaining the status quo established by their predecessors.
Although each of these subsets of employees should be treated with the same consideration, care and attention to ensuring their progress and growth within your organization, it’s important that we recognize the need for organizational dialects – subtle differences in how and what we should communicate that reflects a similar reality to these Australian bats who have acquired distinct skill sets allowing them to achieve their goals.
By incorporating these aspects into your leadership, you can ensure that you’re providing the kind of support your employees need, both to succeed in their efforts as well as in their ability to develop and grow while under your direction.