Celebrating the anniversary of an old friend – how Learning Styles help leaders get things done…

I have been conducting one to one coaching with Senior Leaders recently, as part of a larger change programme, and it was clear that the concept of “Learning Styles” has more opportunity for use other than designing training and development to match different traits.

It’s been 35 years since Honey and Mumford first published their “Learning Styles Questionnaire”.  And it is time to celebrate an old, and maybe forgotten friend.

You may well be aware of the concepts or this could be new to you, but at NewLeaf we use Learning Styles as an integral component when helping organisations through their journey of business improvement and Transformational change.

It was often used in a narrow way, focusing on different preferences for “training”.  However, this misses out on so much richness and, perhaps is why it has been forgotten.

The four learning styles, based on David Kolb’s original work, can be incredibly helpful in;

  • getting things done
  • leading to make things happen
  • driving business change

Firstly, let’s go back to basics…

If you have a team dominated by Theorists, who love to discuss and theorise, then what are you likely to see?  Lots of energetic debates, constructive arguments, research being produced, a robustness to decision making and… not much else!  No actual action, not much being implemented, not much changing.

If you have a team dominated by Activists, then what will you see?  Lots of quick decisions being made, things changing, people deep in tasks, reports being produced but… lack of co-ordination, mistakes, inefficiency, duplication, and “black holes” were agreed actions seem to disappear.

If you have a team dominated by Pragmatists, you’ll likely see lots of planning and experiments to test ideas, drawing conclusions and… but often not actually moving out of a testing phase into “actions for change”.

If you have a team dominated by Reflectors, then we will likely see people taking time to discuss and consider all the options and possibilities, and real thoroughness and depth of thought but… delays in acting and again little done with a sense of urgency

Remember, individuals will have strong or moderate preferences, but also have some of the traits in other styles. So, in a team usually there is a balance of required traits, but many leaders don’t embrace this when working with the teams.

So, if this is not only about using Learning Styles to decide what training you prefer, what is it about?


Knowing the different learning traits, leaders can manage individuals and teams more effectively.

How many of these situations have you experienced as a leader?

  1. You’ve got a team who produce great plans, but need a push to actually get things started
  2. Your team have a fantastic can-do attitude –but they don’t take the time to co-ordinate and plan the approach, they jump right in
  3. You give your team a challenge and they spend a lot of time discussing different options and ideas – weeks later, despite reviews, you’re frustrated that nothing has actually happened
  4. Your team meetings are full of great debate, but actions keep getting moved onto the next meeting – members think more reflecting and planning are always needed

At the heart of these very real situations is Learning Styles, and there are two considerations:

Understanding your Team’s Traits

A key responsibility of a leader is to give direction and work with the team to deliver the associated objectives and goals in line with that direction.

To do this, all four learning styles traits are needed in a team.  If one dominates, then we can see the issues highlighted in the examples above.

What you should do….

  • Study the Honey and Mumford work on Learning Styles in more detail. You will be able to assessment people more effectively.
  • Ask your team to complete the questionnaire (including you). This will give great insight and act as a team activity too. Remember there is no wrong answer!

Above can be provided by NewLeaf International.

Awareness of individual and group preference is the first step.  Being open about preferences and the impact it is having is crucial to getting the right balance between Planning, Doing, Reviewing and Improving.

Starting in the right place

A leader can help teams get the right balance by agreeing which dominant style is required at a particular phase of a project, or improvement programme.

This depends on the situation

For some situations, it requires careful thought and planning first – being a Reflector and Theorist.  It may even need a pilot or testing- being a Pragmatist.  It’s best to take your time before moving to Activist and making the changes.

For other phases, it’s best just to get on and do it: it doesn’t need a lot of time to discuss and the opportunity is too important to miss.  It does not have to be perfect and you can reflect and adapt as you go.

Helping a team decide what main traits need focus and where the emphasis should be means they are not driven by subconscious preference, but by what is required to deliver the change in the business.

Each situation should be evaluated, and here are some criteria that can help assess which learning styles to amplify and when:

  • Complexity – how many moving parts?
  • Reach – how far and wide is the impact?
  • Accuracy – what is the impact of it not being right first time?
  • Timing – what is the impact of a delay and missed opportunities?

Agreeing this with your teams at the start, and regularly reviewing it, will mean that the appropriate style is being used at the appropriate time – getting things done in the right way in your organisation. 

It means not getting stuck in research or planning but agreeing when you need to move into acting- and doing.

It means not racing off at a 100mph but taking the time to stop and reflect and improve.

 So, we’ve seen that Learning Styles isn’t about how to train people, but how individuals and teams operate and make decisions to move the business forward.

After 35 years, it’s still a sound theory, with a practical application to taking action – and, on reflection, worth another look.

For more information and an informal chat contact me;

Matthew Moxon

Managing Consultant

E: headoffice@newleafinter.co.uk

T: 01905 425209