Learning styles to sharpen your leadership skills

This article is based on research by Joan M. Batista Foguet

What is your learning style as a manager? Are you an Accommodator, a Converger, a Diverger or an Assimilator? According to David A. Kolb's learning model, there are four main ways of learning.

The theory shows that being aware of what your style is will help you better adapt to and deal with new challenges.

The 4 learning styles by David Kolb
1. The Diverger 2. The Assimilator 3. The Converger 4. The Accommodator
Divergers look at things from different perspectives, they are observers and use imagination to solve problems. They are interested in people, are sensitive and tend to be strong in the arts. Assimilators are guided by logic and are great at organising information in a clear and logical format. They are more focused on abstract concepts and less interested in people. They tend to be strong in science careers. People with a converging learning style prefer technical tasks and are best at finding practical uses for ideas. They prefer to work with practical applications and find solutions to solve problems. Accommodators rely on intuition rather than logic. They tend to act on gut instinct rather than logical analysis. People with an accommodating learning style tend to rely on others for information.

But what if Kolb's learning styles questionnaire has often been analysed incorrectly? Research by Esade Professor Joan Manuel Batista Foguet reveals what they termed a 'zero type error' – the ritualistic use of statistical models regardless of the type of data actually available – in analysing Kolb's Learning Style questionnaire.

To correct this analysis flaw, the authors propose a new analytical method that confirms and clarifies the existence of a third dimension added to the two usual ones used in Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory (KELT): Grasping Knowledge and Transforming Knowledge. The researchers wonder whether this could be the third dimension hypothesised by Kolb when KELT was originally proposed.

Published in Frontiers of Psychology, the research involved garnering real data for the last 15 years from Esade Full-Time MBA graduates, who took part in a Leadership Development programme based on Richard Boyatzis' Intentional Change Theory. Data was collected through a digital platform – based on KELT and designed by Professor Ricard Serlavós – as part of the learning process.

Questionnaires that force users to prioritise among alternatives may deliver controversial results

"Kolb's questionnaire forces respondents to prioritise among the four alternative learning styles instead of presenting them as four independent factors. It is very hard to fill out questionnaires containing forced-choice items. This forced choice questionnaire produces constraints on the information obtained," says Batista Foguet.

Questionnaires that force users to prioritise among alternatives may deliver controversial results. "Our research shows that Kolb's questionnaire has been often analysed incorrectly and we propose a new methodology to correct this error using compositional data."

The new third dimension

If the statistical analysis were to be corrected using this proposed methodology, David Kolb's questionnaire results would benefit from a new third dimension which would help managers deepen the knowledge style of their teams. 

According to Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory, people learn through a process that involves a 4-stage learning cycle:

1. Abstract Conceptualisation (AC) 2. Concrete Experience (CE) 3. Reflective Observation (RO) 4. Active Experimentation (AE)
Concluding/learning from the experience. Doing/having an experience. Reviewing/reflecting on the experience. Planning/trying out what you have learned.

Kolb's four learning styles imply that during the learning process, people can only combine up to two of the four learning stages following this pattern:

  • Divergers combine CE with RO.
  • Assimilators combine AC with RO.
  • Convergers combine AC with AE.
  • Accommodators combine CE with AE.

"We show that in fact, people can actually combine more than two stages in their learning process – they can even combine up to three or four," says Batista Foguet.  

"Our analysis shows that learners might also combine Abstract Conceptualisation (AC) with Concrete Experience (CE), as well as Active Experimentation (AE) with Reflective Observation (RO)."

The findings also show the fact that those more flexible learners can quickly adapt and use any of the four stages.

Graspers versus transformers

The new third dimension also reveals whether one person has a greater tendency to learn by just grasping knowledge or whether this person tends to learn by transforming this information. "Managers with self-awareness prefer transformation – they are better at transforming knowledge thanks to their pragmatic orientation and emotional intelligence competencies," says Batista Foguet.

The findings also confirm that people with self-awareness tend to be better at grasping knowledge through concrete experience rather than through abstract conceptualisation. "We hope our findings open the door to more research on what good graspers or good transformers are good at, and shed some light on the potential benefits of using compositional data," concludes Batista Foguet.

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