Knowing How Isn’t Always Enough

Last November, I took a break and spent a (well deserved if I do say so) vacation in Jamaica.

While there, my wife and I went for a dive on one of the reefs off the coast of Negril. Despite being a proficient diver, having dove for many years in Central America, South-East Asia, and the Red Sea, I wouldn’t classify myself as a devotee. For this trip, one dive was enough and for the remainder of my trip, I was happy watching people practice in the pool as part of their certification course while having my morning coffee. Watching their progress, something struck me that reminded me of the work we do at The Refinery.

As part of the certification process, a critical skill that is taught is how to respond to an out-of-air (OOA) emergency. The basic training process is as follows: people read how to respond to an OOA situation; watch a video on how to respond; then answer a quiz to demonstrate they have the knowledge of how to respond to this emergency. Next, they don all their scuba gear, enter and stand in the shallow end of the pool, and the instructor demonstrates again how to respond to an OOA emergency. Then the aspiring divers buddy up, move to the deep end (all of 10’), and perform an OOA emergency resulting in chaos as most of the divers pop to the surface wild-eyed and coughing.

When faced with doing the activity, the majority of the new divers fail despite knowing exactly how to respond – and this is in the calm, controlled environment of a pool! Building the capacity to act on the knowledge in the “real world” requires embedding the “how” beyond conscious cognitive understanding; it requires repeated experiential practice and reflection on what worked and what didn’t. When I did my dive certification, our initial training was in the deep end of a competitive 10M diving pool; deep enough where you could feel the pressure and needed to equalize your ears. My instructor had a wonderfully nasty, yet very helpful habit of randomly swimming up behind us and turning off our air while we were practicing other skills (and would grab us by our vest and haul us back down if we bolted for the surface). While this was not necessarily enjoyable, the OOA emergency response becomes embedded in a way that has translated into a true ability to act on the “how,” developing the ability to adapt and respond as the situation requires.

What does this have to do with The Refinery? Knowing how does not automatically equate to being able to act on the knowledge. This truth is continuously compounded by our ever-expanding VUCA world. For example, you can spend an entire day training people on how to manage conflict, then put them in a situation that triggers the basic “fight or flight” response and watch the fireworks begin. At The Refinery, not only would we build the “how” of conflict management, we would put our participants in a situation that would stimulate a real response (perhaps several times) while taking reflective space to allow each leader to understand – cognitively, emotionally, physically – what happened and what to do differently going forward, thereby building the embedded capacity to act on the “how.”

As you think about how you are developing as a leader, consider how you might take your “how” beyond a purely cognitive level. That way, when you find yourself out of air, 80 feet below the surface (and as a leader, you will – time and time again), you will be ready to act in a way that will best serve you and those around you.

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