Over the years, I’ve experienced two emerging dynamics regarding leadership and employee development: the concern over measuring success and the efficacy of development work. The focus on measuring often prevents the very kind of unlearning required for effective employee development today.

The best development model reveals a three-fold view of new knowledge, new perceptions, and new practices. This view is most effective because it naturally includes unlearning.

The dilemma, however, remains satisfying our preoccupation with return on investment (ROI), which finds it hard to measure unlearning.

The Dilemma of Measuring ROI

The obsessive focus on ROI finds coaches and leadership development specialists scrambling to prove that their efforts 1) can be measured in quantifiable ways and 2) are effective based on those quantifiable measures.

With billions of dollars poured into leadership development and learning each year, most organizations still do a poor job of measuring the effectiveness of their initiatives, and only 18 percent have even tried, according to the 2018 DDI Global Leadership Forecast.

An ROI calculates the monetary value of the changes in business impact. Subtracts the costs, both direct and indirect. The net benefits divided by the costs will give you the ROI. Simple, right? But what about intangibles?

While intangibles can be converted to money and included in the ROI calculation, the cost of doing so typically outweighs the benefits. If improvements can be shown in teamwork, inclusion, greater trust, and communication, which are directly linked to learning and leadership development, the value is clear enough.

These intangibles rate highly among employee satisfaction and often redound to customer satisfaction.

No matter what we measure, however, we will still miss something.

The New Definition of Development

The impasse with measuring ROI stems from a narrow—antiquated—view of “development” that focuses on observable evidence from empirical knowledge.

In our age of fungible knowledge with information overload, the volatile pace of change, and increasing complexity, any notion of development today must include unlearning. How do we measure that?

Resolving the efficacy issues with leadership development will first require setting aside our (in)ability to measure adequately. We can observe change and adaptation sufficient to identify markers for success if we link development programs to longer-term strategic goals.

The real issue involves the blend that can meet today’s organizational demands for evolutionary change, which includes the need to learn and unlearn. This requires a three-dimensional approach involving 1) new knowledge, 2) new perceptions, and 3) new practices.

This approach upends more than measurement and ROI; it reimagines the notion of development beyond the incremental progression of acquiring knowledge. Three-dimensional learning will result in letting go of our outmoded self-conceptions to evolve new self-perceptions and shape new assumptions, attitudes, and actions.

This essential kind of learning will ask a more potent question than what the cost of this development is: What is the cost of not engaging in development?

The Three Dimensions of Development

The notion of development is NOT analogous to machine models as in “fixing” or computer models as in “multi-tasking.” It is about being human.

To expand humanity, leadership and employee development includes a blend of new knowledge to question the rational and cognitive self, new perceptions to cultivate the intuitive self, and new practices to sustain the following aspects of learning:

1 – Knowledge. Here we develop aptitude via research and the study of concepts. We apply concepts to develop competencies, which involve a blend of abilities, skills, and knowledge.

  • Knowledge develops aptitude. We develop content, skills, concepts, and methods. Examining our rational self, we discern any impediments to acquiring knowledge.
  • An important result involves a new level of competency to optimize effort.

2 – Perception. Here we develop attitude via distinctions that refine our powers of observation. Distinctions access new perceptions to alter how we 1) use our senses to perceive our world and 2) interpret that information to represent reality.

  • Perception develops attitude. We develop context to cultivate views, mindsets, and attitudes. Accessing our intuitive self, we reveal any impediments to increasing awareness.
  • An important result involves a new level of awareness to expand views.

3 – Practice. Here we train techniques that range from contemplative and reflective rituals to processes and repetitive routines. We access our affective self to apply knowledge and sustain perceptions that build new perspectives and habits,

  • Practices develop accuracy. We employ techniques and rituals to align our attitude and aptitude and clarify our experiences.
  • An important result involves a new level of grounding to concentrate our focus.

When combined, this model encourages ongoing questioning, continual reflection, and important disclosures, as detailed in the image below.

Unlearning and Development

I’ve dedicated much research and energy to the notion of unlearning here, here, and here to detail some of the complexities involved in this dynamic.

Recall that unlearning involves breaking down the origins of our thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, feelings, and biases.

This is where measuring betrays our best efforts. Unlearning is terribly hard to predict. It often involves letting go of knowledge, assumptions, or beliefs. This can impact identity to reveal what sociologist and educator Jack Mezirow calls a “disorienting dilemma.”

Mezirow argues that transformations often follow some variation of the following ten phases of clarifying meaning:

  1. A disorienting dilemma;
  2. A self-examination involving feelings;
  3. A critical assessment of epistemic, sociocultural, or psychic assumptions;
  4. Recognition that discontents and processes of transformation arise together;
  5. Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions;
  6. Planning a course of action;
  7. Acquiring the knowledge and skills to implement one’s plan;
  8. Provisional experiments with new roles;
  9. Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships; and
  10. A reintegration into one’s life based on conditions dictated by one’s perspective.

These stages ultimately require increasing awareness to create new contexts beyond understanding content. The content we understand here is the self, which occurs differently for everyone.

Three-Dimensional Learning

A full appreciation of human development requires three-dimensional learning because it includes unlearning. Something as common as learning about time management can reveal how this approach develops our current view of time:

  1. Improving knowledge optimizes systems with tools and technologies.
  2. Examining perceptions reveals our relationship to choosing and our view of time. We can discern perfectionism that paralyzes action, overwhelm in the face of complexity, impulses causing reactivity that undermines effectiveness, ignorance as to why we choose or prioritize as we do, or habitual promising to please others.
  3. Employing practices embodies knowledge and perceptions. Pausing and mindfulness bring awareness to impulses that undermine intentional choosing. Chunking projects or time breaks larger projects into smaller goals. Creating more space between events ensures grounding and focusing on priorities.

By exploring the complexity of time management, we can understand the value of learning beyond acquiring knowledge to interrupt patterns and bring forth new practices.

When scrutinizing any leadership or employee developmental program, it is critical to include all three dimensions to ensure sustainable learning and unlearning.

Beyond conventional ROI, leaders and HR managers who become involved in how learning exists beyond any program can seed the very commitment that transforms employees into engaged colleagues.

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.