Maximizing behavioral change in leadership development programs

In our previous blog post, we outlined the importance of engaging a critical mass of pivotal influencers during leadership development programs to sustainably shift the leadership in the organization. How this critical mass is engaged, however, matters greatly.

Unfortunately, a large number of organizations continue to emphasize classroom learning rather than on-the-job application and feedback, leading to little behavioral change and wasted resources.

Instead, organizations should design leadership development interventions with an explicit focus on helping individuals become better at their daily jobs using the latest insights linked to neuroscience. We synthesize this imperative into seven principles:

  1. Stretch participants: Research by psychoanalysts, neuroscientists and neurologists suggest adults learn best when they are stretched outside their comfort zones. This is because development through establishing new neural pathways comes through doing a different activity (a new language, a musical instrument, a new sport) and/or through doing habitual activity differently).
  2. Use self-directed learning: Adults are autonomous and self-directing, meaning that they live under a large degree of self-governance and according to their own laws, beliefs and values. Allowing them to direct their own learning, for example through a learning experience platform with a variety of learning modalities, therefore enhances motivation and effectiveness.
  3. Emphasize on-the-job learning and repetition: Adults learn best when they learn on the job using and are deliberate in developing their work skills. As evidenced in a study of London taxi drivers by neuroscientists Elenaor Maguire and Katherine Woollett, and Hugo Spier—a professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, this is because the brain can form and strengthen new neural pathways - regular practice of a skill leads to expansion of the skill related network of a functional area.
  4. Create a positive context: A large number of studies have shown that positive emotions and psychological safety can enhance learning, while negative emotions (for example, being fearful of making a mistake) are ambivalent to learning or can, in the worst cases, diminish learning.
  5. Focus on strengths: For a given amount of energy, adults derive greater benefits from building on a strength than from correcting a development area. For example, a study published in Cognitive Therapy and Research, which reviewed two bowling teams at the University of Wisconsin, showed the team that was coached using video tapes of their successes improved twice as much as the team that was shown only their mistakes.
  6. Address mindsets: Understanding one’s underlying mindsets and beliefs is a pre-condition to removing many of the roadblocks not only to learning but also to behavioral change, according to a study published in Harvard Business Press. Applying a whole person approach to learning focuses not only on what the leader should know and do, but also on who the leader should be.
  7. Feedback (and reflection): Successful leadership development programs include sufficient measurement and feedback loops to participants, to enhance the learning process. This can be in the form of a formal coach, a peer coach, group role-playing and introspection and reflection.


A focus on an approach that emphasizes interventions that help individuals become more developed in their skills, and ultimately better at their jobs, is key to lasting, impactful change. Maximizing behavioral change in leadership development programs is one of four core principles we outline in McKinsey’s new book, Leadership at Scale.

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