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.


About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
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9 Responses to Guided mastery at work

  1. Melody Browne says:

    Re “Talent Development” in the corporate work – I think for the first few years of my career I focussed on trying to fix the things that not only I, but also the people in my team were not good at. About 10 years ago I switched my focus to the things that I was good at and also worked with people on what they were good at. Everybody is good at something. It was pretty amazing to “inherit” people from other teams who were tagged as under performers and after working with them on using and developing the skills they were good at how it transformed their work and their confidence.
    That is the fun stuff about working with people and seeing them grow.

    • John Stepper says:

      I’ve had that same experience of inheriting people labelled as poor performers and finding they were excellent. And it wasn’t due to my awesome management. It was as simple as understanding their learning goals and crafting the job to line up more closely to things they intrinsically wanted to do.

      While it was terrible to see the effects of labeling at work, It was a joy to watch someone view their own self-efficacy differently.

      • Irene Johansen says:

        I remember an experience in music school (B.Mus). A sessional piano teacher was hired to cover two different faculty members’ sabbaticals, for two years. Every other piano teacher on faculty dumped their “no-talent” students, and all the “second instrument study” students (including me, in his second year) on him. The weird thing was, he didn’t treat any of us as less than talented. He looked for where each of us was, and where we could go, and showed us how we could get there. By the end of one semester with him, I was confounding all the other faculty (and myself) by playing in recital, and very well. I was a flute player and a composer, but my buddy, one of the best pianists in the school, came up to me after and hugged my, saying, “a musician is a musician”…

        By the end of each school year, ALL of his piano major students were getting A’s in their juries. So much for no talent. He was also performing himself, at an incredibly high level, with the local orchestra and in recital. The very sad thing: the others were so jealous that, when a position came up the following year, they shut him out of it, and hired a laise-et-faire, mediocre talent who’s students were uninspired by him. All of the talented teacher’s students were outraged of course, and for a very few of us in the know, there was a second reason for frustration: He was oriental, and dating a non-oriental musician (not his student). He was labeled and disposed of. I heard later that he continued to try elsewhere, but the labeling followed him, and he gave up and went in to medicine. I don’t know if he could have continued, but he was obviously tired of the fight, and I sympathize. It was such an incredible loss to music. Not only did many students miss out on the chance to avoid the “labeling” others had been subjected to in the past, the teacher/musician himself lost his musical voice to someone else’s ego. A cautionary tale perhaps, but something to be aware of. What do you do when the opposite of what you do happens?

      • John Stepper says:

        Great story! Have you read “The Art of Possibility?” by Ben Zander? He’s a conductor and pianist and your story reminded me of his book (and his TED talk).

        Sometimes you’re unlucky and the environment rejects you. If I were to go back in time and counsel your teacher, I’d encourage him to make his work visible so that other schools, desperate for a teacher like him, would know of him and his work.

  2. Reblogged this on Patrick Arnold's Blog and commented:
    Being mentored by John on how to work out. Loud has been an amazing experience. I’ve uncovered my hidden talent of shipping posts weekly on Human Efficiency at work on our internal platform.

  3. Irene Johansen says:

    I find Bill Gates’ comment interesting:“It’s amazing. I think you’ve just got a glimpse of the future of education.” I think we actually have a glimpse of the past of education: apprenticeship, the first universities (root = universal, wide-ranging knowledge). A master demonstrates, an apprentice watches, learns, learns patience and persistence from having to do simple things, seemingly unrelated things, over and over; then is allowed a little more, and a little more to do, until they become journeymen (people who travel to gain experience, or can work on their own, but still report to a master). Only after years of work, do they themselves become masters, with the full expectation that they will take on apprentices… Musicians, jewelers, tailors, blacksmiths, doctors, carpenters, architects, engineers, painters (walls and canvases!). The future is that it’s available to everyone, anywhere, anytime, courtesy of the social flattener, the Internet, and the discipline has to come from from the self, the willingness to try, over and over, to keep learning, until you get better, never stopping learning.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hi, Irene. Yes, in some ways, guilds have been examples of guided mastery for 1000 years. They were exclusive clubs, though, whose purpose was to control knowledge as much as to teach it.

      So the openness of today’s systems, coupled with the myriad feedback mechanisms we have, make guided mastery more readily accessible to everyone.

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