It all started with the Rheea’s tweet.
No, wait. It started with Piotr’s post about delivering feedback.
No! It started a few months ago on one of coaching sessions when I was trying to point how much we can learn about leading teams while observing pretty bad manager.
Actually it started even earlier. Quite a few years ago I realized how much I learned from a manager I had worked with. The guy was a perfect example of everything I didn’t want to become as manager. If you asked me which of his traits I wanted to copy the answer would be nil. Ideally bad example.
And yet I learned hell lot from him.
When we think about learning we usually imagine someone who shows us how things should be done. Then we try to copy the approach and finally we gain a new skill. And now that you asked, I am well aware this is one huge oversimplification. Anyway we tend to look for role-models, mentors, gurus and thought leaders. This is how we subconsciously choose to learn.
However bad examples are as good as um… good ones. Typically we follow the pattern: observe, figure out the mechanism, try to copy, verify results, get proficient if it works. Now if you have a bad example instead of a good one there’s only a slight change: observe, figure out the mechanism, find the opposite, try to copy it, verify result, get proficient if it works.
A simple example. I’m a child. I see how my older brother gets a pat in the back for running some errands for my mum. I figure out the connection: pat in the back (good thing) for running errands (work to do). I copy it offering my help on next occasion. I get my pat in the back. System works. My mum has one more boy to give him small tedious tasks to do and I’m a new hero.
But as children we learn from negative examples as well. I see how my brother plays with a cooker which ends up with a couple of bad burns. I figure out that for children playing with cooker ends painfully. The opposite seems to be not playing with cooker to avoid pain, which I try to do. Seems to work. I get a new superhero skill: avoiding burns. Actually my superhero skill is learning on bad examples.
But then, when we grow, we lose this magic skill. We keep saying “he’s a crappy manager – I can’t learn a thing from him.” The truth is you can, you just don’t want. There’s only one additional step in the learning process which makes a bad example valuable in terms of learning effort.
Also, knowing what to avoid is as important as knowing what to do. Unless you have a bad example at hand learning don’ts isn’t that easy.
Bad example is good example. Especially when you have no good examples around.