chalkboardschool.gifWhat are teachable moments? They’re moments when people can be reached, either because something has just happened that serves as a memorable real-life example of an important principle, or because for one reason or another we are more open to learning, to accepting change.

The “teachable moment” concept is most often found in education but is taking root in the medical field. “The label ‘teachable moment’ has been used to describe naturally occurring health events thought to motivate individuals to spontaneously adopt risk-reducing health behaviors.”** In other words, when someone has just been diagnosed, there is a moment of deep engagement, a time of high leverage that medical professionals can use to help create and imbed habits of life-changing behavior while the emotional impact is still great.

When the news is fresh in our minds, we are most motivated to change. After a while we begin to adapt and the need for change, while logically still just as important, fades in emotional urgency as the new reality becomes an accepted norm. The danger is in learning to live with it without having learned any lasting lessons.

Teachable moments occur in business and in our personal lives, too. If we are to be effective leaders of ourselves and others, it behooves us to remain alert for teachable moments and to use these moments when they occur.

When we stumble at The Collier Companies (and we do!), I often consider it a learning opportunity, a teachable moment. My goal is that the ENTIRE team learn from the mistakes of one member. Mistakes are too valuable a learning experience to be hoarded, the tuition much too high. When you have the courage to say “My bad! Recovery under way,” when it is okay to admit being human, when you are openly willing to share your learning curve, then you know you have created a robust learning environment.

I don’t like mistakes. No boss does. But I know that the “opportunity cost” of trying to be perfectly perfect is usually much greater than the cost of the occasional mistake. Instead of insisting on perfection, I push for continuous improvement and rapid advancement. I consider a little creative chaos to be the price of progress, of pushing forward into the unknown, of conquering new territory, of expansion. You never know how far you can go until you have gone too far. (See my blog post “New Goal: Fail Often.“)

Often the actual moment of a mistake is NOT the teachable moment. Frequently emotions are too high, the stress too great. People usually are speaking the “Language of Emotion,” not the “Language of Logic” (see blog posting). If the lesson is important enough to teach, then it is important enough to wait until the situation is less volatile.

We hold regular “post-action situation reviews,” where we pause to examine how we did compared to our projections, goals, and targets. These feedback sessions create excellent teachable moments. The key is to avoid the “gotcha” mentality of blame, instead staying focused on mature acceptance of responsibility and sharing valuable lessons learned to apply moving forward.

Have you experienced any “teachable moments” recently? Have you used them fully? What have you learned from teachable moments?

Closing quote: A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go but ought to be. – Rosalynn Carter


** Health Education Research, Vol. 18, No. 2, 156-170, April 2003. C. M. McBride, K. M. Emmons and I. M. Lipkus. © 2003 Oxford University Press.