The Bates Blog

Leadership Workshops: The Power of Confusion

Posted on Tue, Jul 10, 2012

By Scott Weighart, Director of Learning and Development

Right out of business school, I was thrilled to get a contract job teaching organizational behavior at a major university—an opportunity to share my great interest in leadership, motivation, and group dynamics.

But I was also really worried.  From the perspective of my students, I figured I was starting out with two strikes.  First, I had just turned 25, so I was barely older than the “kids” I’d be teaching.  Second—and a bigger issue—I knew very well that organizational behavior was viewed as a bit of a joke by many business majors.  “It’s all common sense!” was the usual complaint.

I finally decided to attack this perception in the first minutes of the first class.  “I know that many of you think that this is all common sense… so let’s find out if you’re right!”  I gave them a partial case study and asked them to predict the outcome.  They got it wrong.  Then I gave them the most devious true-and-false quiz you can imagine.   Almost every statement that sounded true was false and vice-versa.

As I gave them all the correct answers, I could sense that the emotional state in the room had changed quickly.  There was a lot of confusion along with some frustration, surprise, and quite a few questions.   It definitely wasn’t the usual first class, where a lecturer reads the syllabus and then sends the students on their way.  It set a tone: The class was going to be challenging and a little disorienting, and you might need to be able to trust your instincts.  I think it was downright unsettling for those students, but I certainly had their attention going forward.

What made me think of this experience from over two decades ago?  Last weekend I read a great new blog by learning expert Annie Murphy Paul called “What Do Emotions Have to Do with Learning?”  Citing a journal article by Notre Dame psychologist Sidney D’mello, she notes the researcher’s counterintuitive finding: “Even negative emotions can play a productive role in learning.” 

This has real implications for any form of training or seminar, including leadership workshops.  Engaged learners apparently benefit from being in a state of “cognitive disequilibrium”—that unsettling feeling we get when we are thrown off by facts that don’t make sense to us.  Real learning is all about “two-step episodes alternating between confusion and insight.”

Another researcher found that learners can also benefit by predicting outcomes of situations and then having their predictions prove wrong.  This produced confusion, which increased the learners’ motivation to understand.

I was fascinated to read all of this.   It helped me understand the science behind what had always seemed like “beginner’s luck” with those first few college classes I taught.   It also reinforces what we do in leadership workshops for companies and individuals: We try to come up with activities that creative cognitive disequilibrium.   For example, we have a great tool that shows people that there is a shocking disconnect between what they want to say in a presentation and what their audience wants to hear.

This is crucial knowledge for anyone who is either coaching someone or being coached, or for someone who is selling something: It’s not only okay to challenge people’s perceptions; it’s an essential way to get people emotionally engaged in your team-building workshop, presentation, sales pitch, or coaching session. 

When people realize that they’ve got it wrong, they’re usually eager to hear some constructive insights about why they’re wrong…. And what steps they can take to get it right.

 

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