Guided mastery at work

SnakeImagine you’re afraid of snakes. You don’t just dislike them. You're so afraid that you can’t even walk on grass for fear a snake might be there. Like other phobias, the fear paralyzes you and the paralysis affects other parts of your life. Then imagine you’ve discovered a way to learn how to overcome that fear in a few hours. Perhaps 45 minutes. You’ve not only overcome your fear of snakes, you’ve changed your life.

Now imagine you could apply this approach at work.

The technique

In 1969, Albert Bandura, the most-cited psychologist alive today, used a technique he later called “guided mastery” to help people overcome their snake phobia. In his experiments, subjects would receive treatment combining “graduated live modeling with guided participation.”

First, they’d watch for 15 minutes through a 1-way mirror as the experimenter interacted with a snake. Then, after the snake was back in its glass cage, the subject might enter the room and sit on a chair at varying distances from the cage. Gradually, the experimenter would model more and more interactions and help the subject follow along.

It was the subject who set the pace of progress, based on their apprehensiveness. And it worked. More than any other methods Bandura tested, guided mastery was the most effective, produced the most sustainable change, and produced benefits that went beyond curing the subject’s fear of snakes.

“Having successfully eliminated a phobia that had plagued them for most of their lives, a number of subjects reported increased confidence that they could cope effectively with other fear-provoking events. As one subject explained it, ‘My success in gradually overcoming this fear of snakes has contributed to a greater feeling of confidence generally in my abilities to overcome any other problem which may arise. I have more faith in myself.’”

What Bandura witnessed, and what he went on to study for the next 40+ years, was a strengthening in self-efficacy, “the extent or strength of one's belief in one's own ability to complete tasks and reach goals.”

Guided mastery in the classroom

This technique’s effectiveness isn’t just limited to phobia treatment, of course. We’ve probably all had some experience with guided mastery, perhaps in learning to play piano or golf. In a recent TED talk, for example, David Kelley from IDEO described using guided mastery to help build people’s creative confidence. Advances in technology, combined with a better understanding of how people learn, are making it easier for all of us to experience guided mastery.

Khan Academy, for example, combines 4500+ online videos, 100,000+ problems, sophisticated dashboards, and real-time coaching from other kids as well as teachers. Just as Bandura helped cure people of their snake phobias in 1969, Salman Khan is using guided mastery to help over 1.5 million subscribers overcome the challenges of learning algebra, physics, and dozens of other subjects.

And he’s finding the same improvements in the student’s sense of self-efficacy.

“There’s a group of kids who’ve raced ahead and there’s a group of kids who are a little bit slower. And in a traditional model, if you did a snapshot assessment, you said ‘these are the gifted kids’, ‘these are the slow kids’...But when you let every student work at their own pace - and we see it over and over and over again - you see students who took a little bit extra time on one concept or the other, but once they get through that concept, they race ahead. And so the same kids you thought were slow, you now would think they’re gifted.”

Guided mastery at work

What about work? Often what we call “talent development” is simply labeling who’s good and who’s not. Instead, firms should help people strengthen their sense of self-efficacy so everyone feels they can get better. In 2000, thirty-one years after the snake phobia study, Bandura was clear that using guided mastery at work produced a wide range of benefits.

“Organizations that provide their new employees with guided mastery experiences, effective co-workers as models, and enabling performance feedback enhance employees self-efficacy, emotional well-being, satisfaction and level of productivity.”

Even better, regardless of the management practices at your firm, now you can experience guided mastery and its benefits by Working Out Loud. Readily coming into contact with experts modeling the work you’re trying to get better at. Making your work visible in small steps. Getting feedback on that work and make progress at your own pace. And, importantly, strengthening your self-efficacy.

After Sal Khan delivered his TED talk, Bill Gates talked with him and told the audience, “It’s amazing. I think you’ve just got a glimpse of the future of education.”

As I  coach people to Work Out Loud, I feel the same way about work.