How to use metacognition to be a better leader

In 2022, when I mention the word meta, you could be forgiven for thinking about Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg. During the second half of 2021, CEO and major shareholder, Zuckerberg, announced the name change, to position the former Facebook as a platform that would be part of the metaverse. Aka, “a composite universe melding online, virtual, and augmented worlds that people can seamlessly traverse” (credit: New York Times). In short meta means the next level up.  

Instead of thinking Facebook when you think about meta, think studies. If you spend your time (which I am guessing most of you don’t) reading research reports and studies, to try and understand what is going on in the world, you will know there are meta studies. Meta studies are a study of the studies. Researchers will review any number of studies on the same topic and look for similar correlations or causation in the data. That review, and the consequent detail that it produces is called a meta-study (generally speaking). It is a study of the studies. The next level up. 

So, what is metacognition. As a concept, metacognition has been around since 1976 when the term was coined by the American Psychologist John H Flavell. Flavell was interested in the development of children, and he critically analysed the works of the early developmental psychologists like Jean Piaget. Flavell was most intrigued by the theory of mind, which is the ability for children to understand that there are other people in the world that also have feelings and thoughts, just like they do (but different thoughts and feelings to them). This work gave Flavell the insight into how we learn, and how we perform cognitively as adults. And more specifically how we apply what we have learnt, through cognitive regulation. Metacognition therefore has been described as ‘thinking about thinking’. The next level up. 

It is probably more specific than that, though. Metacognition is about how you learn and gain knowledge, and then how you apply that knowledge (and if the learning process has been effective).  

So, how can leaders use Metacognition to take their leadership to the next level? Let’s unpack that question. 

1. Knowledge as an element of metacognition 

A lot of the metacognition research work has been focused on students, and classroom settings. Given that leading is about learning though, it is important for leaders to understand how they learn new skills and knowledge. One great report on metacognition that I came across was penned by Emily Lai, who explained that metacognitive knowledge is the knowledge that you have about your cognitive strengths, as well as your cognitive limitations. In other words, what do you learn easily and what don’t you learn easily. There are three types of metacognitive knowledge; declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge, and conditional knowledge. 

Declarative knowledge is what you know about yourself as a learner. What things do you learn and remember well, and what things are harder to learn and remember. Like names, or phone numbers, as an example. Or processes, or procedures. Or general knowledge. Or historical dates. A superpower for leaders is to be able to remember things quickly and understanding how leaders can improve their declarative knowledge will help the leader be better at cognitive processing and information recall. Declarative knowledge is easy to verbalise. 

As a leader, how do you learn best? Is it reading, studying, writing, asking questions, listening to an audiobook, TED talks, classroom training, or something else? And what makes it easier for you to learn something new?  

Procedural knowledge is about having a cognitive understanding of what you do. Procedural knowledge relates to things like riding a pushbike (as a simple example), which if someone asked you to explain how you do it, it would be difficult to verbalise. You just do it. Metacognition challenges you to think about how you do what you do. And what techniques you apply. To think about what rules of thumb (heuristics), or what methods, you apply to your leadership, or to certain situations or circumstances. Imagine for a moment trying to explain how you do leadership to someone.  

As a leader, how do you do what you do (and why) and how would you explain your thought processes to someone who you were coaching?  

Conditional knowledge is simply knowledge relating to when, and how to apply declarative and procedural knowledge to learning. It allows leaders to allocate their cognitive resources to the learning process in a way that makes the leader more effective at learning (and listening). This is a key element of metacognition, as self-aware leaders know what conditions (internal and external) they learn best in and retain most from. 

As a leader, how, when, where and what do you need to learn to be more effective in your role?  

2. Regulation as an element of metacognition 

The regulation of thinking and learning is about; planning what you are going to do, monitoring if you have been effective, and evaluating if you have achieved your overall goals. 

Planning is about the identification and selection of the appropriate strategy for the situation or condition. And planning how to learn or work “in a strategic manner, to achieve a goal or objective” (credit: Jenifer Livingston). In other words, in a difficult situation, your planning process (and metacognition) will kick in, and you will think through what the best strategy is to apply and what will work best in a situation.  

And then apply the strategy to your learning or your situation. 

As a leader, what are the strategies that you have available to you, for when you are under stress or duress (internal or external pressure)? You can do some of that thinking in advance! 

Evaluation is about reflection and looking back on the situation with a critical eye and determining if you made the right decision and if you applied the right strategy. This is about asking metacognitive questions, like ‘how well did I do’, and ‘what would I do differently next time’. It is the first and most basic part of reflection but is more of a high-level review of your outcome. It is somewhat binary, and is about a yes or a no. 

Deep refection (after the event) or introspection (during the event, in the moment) is the key leadership and metacognitive skill however, and one that should be practiced as much and as regularly as possible. Reflection is a learnt skill, and it is like keeping a mental (or written) journal of your experiences, and why or why not you will take the same approach into the future.  

If you do nothing else after reading this post, please think about how you can add reflection to your leadership and life. And you might think you are doing it well already, and that is great. Make sure that it is reflection, though, and not rumination (big difference, one is positive, and one isn’t). 

As a leader, think about a situation that you have been through, where you have tried to learn something, or you have had to solve a problem. And unpack what went well and what didn’t. 

So, there you have it. Metacognition.  

A big topic, with two major elements, and three sub-elements under each. Not complex, and completely worth the effort to understand and apply it. 

Check out the sources for more information. 

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About Anton

Anton has dedicated his working life to helping leaders to upgrade their mindset, upskill their leadership, and uplift their teams! With a focus on helps leaders to better lead under pressure. Anton is an entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, bestselling author and founder of The Guinea Group. Over the past 19 years, Anton has worked with over 175+ global organisations, he has inspired workplace leadership, safety, and cultural change. He’s achieved this by combining his corporate expertise, education (Bachelor of HR and Psychology), and infectious energy levels.
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Metacognition: A Literature Review Research Report (Emily Lai) 
Metacognition: An Overview (Jennifer A. Livingston) 
Metacognition (University of Texas at Austin) 

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