Systems 1 and 2 in leadership development

As a child, I was mortified of dogs. To make matters worse a German Shepherd, Bonnie, was living at my mom’s house. Every time I headed over for a visit the same scenario would play out; In the car I would be beaming confidence. I knew rationally that there was no reason to be afraid and I imagined arriving and commanding Bonnie to “Sit!”. However, as soon as we pulled up and got out of the car I was crying and hiding behind my dad.

I may only have been six years old, but I still fell victim to the most human of fallacies: what we decide to do is rarely what we end up doing.

Leadership development – from theory to action

Working with leadership development often sets us up for the same fallacy. We design programs, show models, and engage leaders in exercises that focus on rational decision making. With the best intentions we contemplate and imagine what leaders should do, ideally, when faced with a given problem.

However, most of our decisions are not rational. They are instinctive, knee-jerk reactions. This very human condition is critical to keep in mind when designing leadership development that aim to yield long term results. Leadership training that may seem good in theory can fail to have the desired impact on leaders’ real-life behaviour, and the competences we hope to develop.

Two systems at play

Daniel Kahnemann’s well known classic “Thinking Fast & Slow” presents the idea of two types of thinking processes. The main point is that our decision making is far less rational than we would like to think. Let’s recap:

- System 1 is the fast and automatic way of thinking. It helps us put on pants without wasting mental effort, and it also makes us reach out for that second slice of pie. System 1 is run by our habits and most of our decisions are governed by this.

- System 2 is the slow and logical way of thinking. It helps us solve complicated problems, read through a difficult test, or engage in deep conversation. Running on system 2 requires more brain power and thus effort.

Our brain is in favour of easy decisions, any day. Still, we tend to believe that we operate on System 2 more often than our brain allows. In other words, we overestimate our own capability to make the right decisions. System 2 makes the New Year’s resolutions, but it is System 1 is making the everyday decisions that determine whether we succeed. In essence, what we decide to do is rarely what we end up doing. 

system 2 in leadership development

This cognitive conflict also creeps into how organisations work with leadership development. So how is that?

To a great extent leadership development speak exclusively to System 2. We present models that help leaders make sense of the world and how they can impact it, we reflect on how to approach organisational challenges, make action plans and blueprints, which requires S L O W thinking.

These type of activities can be of tremendous value to the leaders in training and there is no need to pass up activities associated with traditional leadership training. But in our experience we need to do more. We need to engage System 1.

If we don’t, we run the risk of not realising the full benefits of leadership training by making idealised, and (overly) ambitious plans that never materialize.

benefits of system 1 in leadership training 

To remedy this, we need to bring System 1 into leadership training. Here are three examples of how we do this at Workz:  

1. Full immersion leadership training

One way of working with System 1 is fully immersed leadership training. Rather than discussing relevant leadership styles, we have participants work directly with leading a group of people. Often in a high-pressure situation that calls for fast thinking

Our concept Leadership Bridge Simulation™ offers just that. In this simulation participants act as the crew of two spaceships. Each participant controls a specific station – weapons, communications, navigation – on their spaceship. Completing the mission requires coordination internally on each ship, and between the two ships as well.

So what's at stake? Nothing, that's the great thing about simulations. But there is much to gain. Throughout a training session all participants play the role of the leader, and this is where we get to see System 1 in action. We see leaders who describe themselves as inclusive and encouraging act out the complete opposite when tensions rise.

This is valuable information for assessing and developing leaders. Flying a spaceship not only sheds light on leadership competences it creates individual awareness of leadership style, blind spots and biases. This is the first step in many a development journey.

2. Pitching and role-playing

When we need a less extensive version of full immersion training, we turn to shorter role-playing or pitching exercises. Here we have leaders mimic either a real-life presentation or a difficult conversation.

The simple trick here is to have the participants experience situations that reflect their daily work as leaders. There is a big difference between talking about how you will deal with an agitated team member afraid of losing their job and handling the situation in real time; saying the words you want to say and feeling what happens when you do.

We typically have the leaders debrief and recontextualise after the session too, but simply being in the situation – albeit make believe – and experiencing System 1 reactions will make leaders better at taking control of similar situations in real life. 

3. From action plans to signature actions

One last way we work with System 1 is by experimenting with the way the leaders bring their learning points home from the training session and implement them in real life. Action plans made at a training session tend to be hidden away in a drawer never to be looked at again. They are made based on System 2 meaning we overestimate what we will get done when we get home.

Because of this, we try to be less ambitious and more specific in our training approach. We help leaders develop signature actions that are concrete and easy to implement while still showing a clear intent to their teams. Sometimes it is the smaller actions and decisions that help cement a strategy or new initiative.

For instance, there is a world of difference between pledging to rolemodel the importance of work-life balance and leaving on Wednesday at 3 PM to take your daughter to football practice. The first action is difficult to carry out when System 1 is calling the shots. The second action is specific, it communicates a clear message and can easily be booked into your schedule.

As human beings we are a lot better at planning to do the right thing than we are at doing it when push comes to shove. We might never get as good at getting things done as System 2 expects, but by acknowledging both systems we can get better at bridging the gap between knowing and doing. No matter if we are trying to design leadership development that makes a real difference or to stand up to a German Shepard.  

Are you curious to put your abilities to the test? Join our upcoming workshop and experience Leadership Bridge Simulation™.