The Knowing-Doing Gap: A Leader’s Guide

You’re pretty clever…

I bet you ‘know’ lots of stuff.

You went to school, you probably went to University and studied interesting things.

Then you launched a career where you have done important, meaningful work – along with some work that seemed less meaningful.

You have a whole stack of life experiences: maybe you’ve bought or sold a house; travelled the world; raised children. You’ve read books, taken courses, spent time chatting with interesting people.

You’ve certainly handled some adversity too. An illness, a period of joblessness or even homelessness, an unsuccessful relationship, a break-up. Maybe you’ve been fired, or laid-off.

You’ve stacked up some life lessons…

Sometimes, life’s lessons come neatly packaged up in the shape of a training programme with clear learning objectives, practice exercises, and techniques and tools to build and demonstrate mastery…

But usually, they don’t.

Your life is a rich tapestry of experiences that have contributed to shaping how you see the world, what you value, how you make sense of others, how you build and maintain relationships, and how you identify and solve problems.

You may even have undertaken some formal leadership development along the way!

Meet: the Knowing-Doing Gap

In the adult training literature, they talk about the ‘knowing-doing gap‘: the idea you can teach things, and people will intellectually ‘know’ them… but that doesn’t mean they will do it… that they will put it into practise.

Why is it that even techniques and tools with tons of supporting evidence – that we know in our heads would work and help us in our jobs – we still fail to put into practise?

When the real life situation occurs, the one that matches the textbook perfectly, we forget what we know and rely on previous experience or old habits?

We aren’t stupid! We know it would help… but the opportunity comes and goes. We see it disappear into the sunset, and wistfully ask “what if…?”

…and yet we improve

This all sounds a bit depressing and gloomy. It isn’t.

Generally we are improving and growing as we go. I don’t know about you, but I’m a better parent now than I was five years ago. I’m a better partner than I was 15 years ago…

But am I a better leader today than I was yesterday?

How quickly can what I learn today improve how I show up tomorrow?

Is it just that our brains are too full that we can’t find the right tool at the right time?

I don’t think so.

I think it’s because, in our daily lives and in our interactions with others, we generally operate in one of two key modes…

Automatic or Reactive


This is our habits. The things we do without thinking too much. Our autopilot.

Just the same as an automatic car changes gear without you needing to think about it at all, being a leader ‘on automatic’ means much of your activity is habitual. The way you greet people, the way you conduct meetings, the way you behave in meetings, the way you respond if someone asks you a questions, how you make decisions – especially small to medium-sized decisions.

And just like your car, this is often pretty handy. It requires less thought and less effort from the driver, who is freed up to focus on other things.

knowing-doing gap

To take the metaphor a little further, just like an automatic car, there are times when the automatic transmission doesn’t serve us quite so well. Going up or down steep hills, for example, or needing to accelerate quickly. While car-makers do improve the capability of an automatic to respond to such situations, it’s never quite the same as driving a manual… Most modern automatic cars include some mechanism for switching into manual (-ish) mode.

The same is true for people. There are lots of benefits to be had from installing a solid set of productive habits in your programming. Things you do frequently are likely to become more consistent and more efficient – saving your energy and decision-making ‘power’ for more important things…

But there’s a problem.

Unlike your car’s gearox, your brain can learn a new habit – a new gear – without you even realising it! If you do something reasonably frequently, regardless of whether you do it well or poorly, and regardless of whether it serves you or trips you up – it can become a habit.

And habits can sneakily adapt too. The situation can change subtly, but the habit plows on regardless, and before you know it you have a habit for a new situation, based on an existing habit.


And while automatic refers to habits and programmed behaviours, reactive refers to times when your emotions over-ride your executive functions… You’ll know this as your fight-or-flight mode. We all have emotional triggers that cause us to feel a bit like a rabbit in the headlights. Usually these things stem back to our child-hood, or our evolutionary patterns. Our aim in these situations is survival – even when the situation isn’t actually life-or-death.

So what do you need to do instead?

Deliberate and Responsive

Being present and mindful allows you to witness a situation, pause, and reflect.

Don’t confuse this with inaction, or indecision.

Instead, it’s a careful and thoughtful response. It can still be quick.

Actions and decisions can still rely on intuition as well as hard data, but they aren’t using poor proxies from your past (and your upbringing) to predict outcomes in what can easily be seen as completely different circumstances.

It opens up space for optimism. For assuming the best in others. And most importantly, it allows you to tap into that valuable knowledge that you have, rather than relying on prehistoric analogies where sabre-tooth tigers lurked around every corner…

If you’d like to hear more about how to switch off the autopilot and close the knowing-doing gap, you might also benefit from our Virtual Coach – join here.

3 thoughts on “The Knowing-Doing Gap: A Leader’s Guide”

  1. And hopefully the more you practice being deliberate and responsive, being mindful can become a (positive) automatic response. I’m still working on this one!

  2. For me being deliberate and responsive involves taking space and time to gain some “instant perspective” – in the form of mindfulness. Being present and in tune with my body and environment is a starting point for clarity and composed decision making.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.