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4 Ways to Create a Learning Culture on Your Team

Technology is disrupting every industry and area of life, and work is no exception. One of the main career implications of the digital revolution is a shift in demand for human expertise. For instance, LinkedIn’s talent research shows that half of today’s most in-demand skills weren’t even on the list three years ago.

As a result, there is now a premium on intellectual curiosity and learnability, the desire and ability to quickly grow and adapt one’s skill set to remain employable. What you know is less relevant than what you may learn, and knowing the answer to questions is less critical than having the ability to ask the right questions in the first place. Unsurprisingly, employers such as Google, American Express, and Bridgewater Associates make learning an integral part of their talent management systems. As a Bersin report pointed out: “The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization’s learning culture.”

However, true learning cultures, defined by CEB as “a culture that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization,” are still the exception rather than the norm. Recent research found that only 10% of organizations have managed to create them, with just 20% of employees demonstrating effective learning behaviors at work. Research by Bersin examined the issue of learning culture in great detail and found that companies who effectively nurture their workforce’s desire to learn are at least 30% more likely to be market leaders in their industries over an extended period of time.

Here are four science-based recommendations to help you create a learning culture on your team or in your organization:

Reward continuous learning. It is impossible to trigger deliberate changes in your team’s or organization’s culture unless you actually put in place formal reward systems to entice them — and even then there is no guarantee you will achieve change unless the rewards are effective. Sadly, even when managers understand the importance of learning — at least in theory — they are often more interested in boosting short-term results and performance, which can be an enemy of learning. By definition, performance is highest when we are not learning. Equally, it is hard for employees to find the necessary time and space to learn when they are asked to maximize results, efficiency, and productivity. A report by Bersin found that among the more than 700 organizations studied, the average employee had only 24 minutes a week for formal learning. Note that rewarding curiosity is not just about praising and promoting those who display an effort to learn and develop; it’s also about creating a climate that nurtures critical thinking, where challenging authority and speaking up are encouraged, even if it means creating discord. This is particularly important if you want your team to produce something innovative.

Give meaningful and constructive feedback. In an age where many organizations focus their developmental interventions on “strengths,” and feel-good approaches to management have substituted “flaws” and “weaknesses” with the popular euphemism of “opportunities,” it is easy to forget the value of negative feedback. However, it is hard to improve on anything when you are unaware of your limitations, fully satisfied with your potential, or unjustifiably pleased with yourself. Although one of the best ways to improve employees’ performance is to tell them what they are doing wrong, managers often avoid difficult conversations, so they end up providing more positive than negative feedback. This is particularly problematic when it comes to curiosity and learning, since the best way to trigger curiosity is to highlight a knowledge gap — that is, making people aware of what they don’t know, especially if that makes them feel uncomfortable. Note that people are generally unaware of their ignorance and limitations, especially when they are not very competent, so guidance and feedback from others is critical to helping them improve. However, negative feedback must be provided in a constructive and delicate way — it is a true art — as people are generally less receptive of it than of praise and appreciation, especially in individualistic (aka narcissistic) cultures.

Lead by example. Another critical driver of employee learning is what you, as a manager or leader, actually do. As illustrated by the leadership value chain model, leaders’ behaviors — particularly what they routinely do — have a strong influence on the behavior and performance of their teams. And the more senior that leaders are, the more impactful their behaviors will be on the rest of the organization. Accordingly, if you want to nurture your team’s curiosity or unlock learning in your organization, you should practice what you preach. Start by displaying some learning and unlocking your own curiosity. It is a sort of Kantian imperative: Don’t ask your employees to do what you don’t do yourself. If you want people to read more, then read — and make others aware of your voracious reading habits (share your favorite books or most recent learnings with them). If you want them to take on novel and challenging tasks, then take on novel and challenging tasks yourself. For example, learn a new skill, volunteer to work on something unrelated to your main job, or take on tasks outside your comfort zone even if you are not good at it — you will be able to show that with a bit of curiosity and discipline you can get better, and this should inspire others. And if you want them to question the status quo and be critical and nonconformist, then don’t be a sucker for order and rules!

Hire curious people. Too often with big management problems, we focus on training and development while undermining the importance of proper selection. But the reality is that it’s easier to prevent and predict than to fix and change. When selection works, there’s far less need for training and development, and good selection makes training and development much more effective because it is easier to augment potential than to go against someone’s nature. Learning and curiosity are no exception: If you hire people who are naturally curious, and maximize the fit between their interests and the role they are in, you will not have to worry so much about their willingness to learn or be on their case to unlock their curiosity. Fortunately, meta-analytic studies provide a detailed catalogue of traits — and their corresponding measures — that increase an individual’s propensity to learn and develop intellectually, even after adulthood. And there is a well-established science to predicting people’s probability of displaying such traits (for example, personality assessments measuring openness to new experience, tolerance for ambiguity, critical thinking, and inquisitiveness). Likewise, decades of research into vocational interests show that aligning people’s drive and interests to the characteristics of the job and culture of the organization tends to increase not just their motivation to learn but also their performance.

In sum, if you want to nurture curiosity and learning in your employees, there’s no need to rely on your organization’s formal learning and development programs. Reinforcing positive learning behaviors, giving constructive and critical feedback to align employees’ efforts with the right learning goals, showcasing your own curiosity, and hiring people with high learnability and a hungry mind are all likely to create a stronger learning culture within your team and your organization.


Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab. His latest book is The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential. Find him on Twitter: @drtcp or at www.drtomascp.com. 


Josh Bersin is founder and principal at Bersin by Deloitte, a leading provider of research-based membership programs in human resources (HR), talent, and learning. He is a global research analyst, public speaker, and writer on the topics of corporate human resources, talent management, recruiting, leadership, technology, and the intersection between work and life.

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The More Senior Your Job Title, the More You Need to Keep a Journal

For leaders assuming the CEO title for the first time, taking time to learn and think translates into early successes. But the problem is there’s little time to do either. Information comes at them more quickly, more people than ever before demand their time, and they’re told that the myriad decisions piled in front of them are all important.

If hired from outside, there is a new culture to get used to and it’s not clear who to trust. Even when promoted from inside, the pace can be jarring compared to running a division in the same company. In both cases, any new leader must manage intense exposure (as it sinks in that top leaders have few places to escape to) and unrealistic expectations (of both self and others).

There is nothing new leaders can do to avoid these problems completely. All they can control is how they react to them. Because we tend to make mistakes when things speed up, especially when in unfamiliar territory, it can make all the difference to find ways to slow things down.

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal pointed out that “All of humanity’s problems come from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” He didn’t mean sitting quietly in front of a laptop responding to emails. The best thinking comes from structured reflection — and the best way to do that is keeping a personal journal.

I started keeping a journal when I took over a manufacturing research, software, and consulting firm. I was very young, we were in crisis facing a challenging market, and I wasn’t sure whom I could rely on. I kept a journal through my 12 years as chairman and CEO and have since recommended it to people moving into any senior position for the first time.

There’s strong evidence that replaying events in our brain is essential to learning. While the brain records and holds what takes place in the moment, the learning from what one has gone through — that is, determining what is important and what lessons should be learned — happens after the fact during periods of quiet reflection.

Also, when we slow things down and reflect, we can be more creative about solving seemingly inscrutable problems. Take, for example, a technique called the “second solution method” that I’ve used in the past. If a group was struggling to come up with options to solve a tough problem, we would brainstorm to identify a list of possible solutions. Before switching to prioritizing, making items specific, etc., we tried to identify all possible options. I found the best approach was to tell the group to take a break and when it reconvened to ask, “What else occurs to you?” Inevitably, this simple question resulted in about 50% more items, often of higher quality. By experimenting, I found that the break that took place between the first and second rounds was more important than the question. A journal is an effective, efficient, private way to take a similar break.

Journal entries should provide not only a record of what happened but how we reacted emotionally; writing it down brings a certain clarity that puts things in perspective. In other cases, it’s a form of mental rehearsal to prepare for particularly sensitive issues where there’s no one to talk with but yourself. Journals can also be the best way to think through big-bet decisions and test one’s logic.

 While personality, style, and situation cause different approaches, some guidelines have proven useful for the best results. Notes should be made as soon as possible after an event from which one wants to learn—ideally the same day. Waiting more than 24 hours seems to sacrifice specificity about details that made the most difference and why they happened.

An entry should begin with the primary outcome — the headline that best captures the major result. Then, list the essential reason for that outcome; an always-subtle root cause made apparent by asking “why?” five times to peel back each layer, revealing what came before. (I remember reviewing my journal once and realized that several big-bet decisions turned on the right question asked at just the right point in the debates. Fortunately, my notes were in enough detail that they showed that the same subordinate asked the right question each time. I started listening to him much more closely). Third, recall the emotions that affected decision making and why they flared. Last, identify what you can learn from the whole experience and what you can do differently next time.

Many will opt to keep a journal on their computer or iPad. While that may be more efficient, the point of keeping a journal is not efficiency but to reflect and slow things down so that learning is maximized. For that purpose, handwriting may work better. The novelist Paul Theroux has said that he writes long-hand because, “The speed with which I write with a pen seems to be the speed with which my imagination finds the best… words.” He noted a 2011 Newsweek article that said, “Brain scans show that handwriting engages more sections of the brain than typing [and] it’s easier to remember something once you’ve written it down on paper.”

With so many benefits of keeping a journal, why do so few leaders do it?

  • It takes time, a most precious asset. Because a journal requires reflection, it’s best done during quiet periods, which are rare for any leader.
  • Sometimes, keeping a journal requires reliving something one would just as soon forget. Even though a vital step in learning, it’s unpleasant.
  • Because many leaders prefer to rapidly move on to the next challenge, reflection is not high on their list of things they enjoy or have much experience with.
  • Like any tool, it takes time to perfect the best way to use it. The methodology offered here did not happen right away, but came after many trials and errors.

These are minor drawbacks compared to the benefits. Slowing things down leads to better-thought-through, more effective judgement and to learning what to do more of and what to change. One result, as important as anything, is an increase in the satisfaction that should come from being in charge. A personal journal should be part of any leader’s toolkit.

Dan Ciampa (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is a former CEO, an adviser to boards and chief executives, and the author of five books, including Transitions at the Top: What Organizations Must Do to Make Sure New Leaders Succeed (with David L. Dotlich, Wiley, 2015) and Right from the Start: Taking Charge in a New Leadership Role (with Michael Watkins, Harvard Business Review Press, 1999). 

 

HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW: https://hbr.org/2017/07/the-more-senior-your-job-title-the-more-you-need-to-keep-a-journal?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter_weekly&utm_campaign=weeklyhotlist&referral=00202&spMailingID=17626641&spUserID=OTA1Njk1ODMwMAS2&spJobID=1060705986&spReportId=MTA2MDcwNTk4NgS2

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If You’re Not Outside Your Comfort Zone, You Won’t Learn Anything

You need to speak in public, but your knees buckle even before you reach the podium. You want to expand your network, but you’d rather swallow nails than make small talk with strangers. Speaking up in meetings would further your reputation at work, but you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Situations like these — ones that are important professionally, but personally terrifying — are, unfortunately, ubiquitous. An easy response to these situations is avoidance. Who wants to feel anxious when you don’t have to?

But the problem, of course, is that these tasks aren’t just unpleasant; they’re also necessary. As we grow and learn in our jobs and in our careers, we’re constantly faced with situations where we need to adapt our behavior. It’s simply a reality of the world we work in today. And without the skill and courage to take the leap, we can miss out on important opportunities for advancement. How can we as professionals stop building our lives around avoiding these unpleasant, but professionally beneficial, tasks?

First, be honest with yourself. When you turned down that opportunity to speak at a big industry conference, was it really because you didn’t have the time, or were you scared to step on a stage and present? And when you didn’t confront that coworker who had been undermining you, was it really because you felt he would eventually stop, or was it because you were terrified of conflict? Take an inventory of the excuses you tend to make about avoiding situations outside your comfort zone and ask yourself if they are truly legitimate. If someone else offered you those same excuses about their behavior, would you see these as excuses or legitimate reasons to decline? The answer isn’t always clear, but you’ll never be able to overcome inaction without being honest about your motives in the first place.

Then, make the behavior your own. Very few people struggle in every single version of a formidable work situation. You might have a hard time making small talk generally, but find it easier if the topic is something you know a lot about. Or you may have a hard time networking, except when it’s in a really small setting.

Recognize these opportunities and take advantage — don’t chalk this variability up to randomness. For many years, I’ve worked with people struggling to step outside their comfort zones at work and in everyday life, and what I’ve found is that we often have much more leeway than we believe to make these tasks feel less loathsome. We can often find a way to tweak what we have to do to make it palatable enough to perform by sculpting situations in a way that minimizes discomfort. For example, if you’re like me and get queasy talking with big groups during large, noisy settings, find a quiet corner of that setting to talk, or step outside into the hallway or just outside the building. If you hate public speaking and networking events, but feel slightly more comfortable in small groups, look for opportunities to speak with smaller groups or set up intimate coffee meetings with those you want to network with.

Finally, take the plunge. In order to step outside your comfort zone, you have to do it, even if it’s uncomfortable. Put mechanisms in place that will force you to dive in, and you might discover that what you initially feared isn’t as bad as you thought.

For example, I have a history of being uncomfortable with public speaking. In graduate school I took a public speaking class and the professor had us deliver speeches — using notes — every class. Then, after the third or fourth class, we were told to hand over our notes and to speak extemporaneously. I was terrified, as was everyone else in the course, but you know what? It actually worked. I did just fine, and so did everyone else. In fact, speaking without notes ended up being much more effective, making my speaking more natural and authentic. But without this mechanism of forcing me into action, I might never have taken the plunge.

Start with small steps. Instead of jumping right into speaking at an industry event, sign up for a public speaking class. Instead of speaking up in the boardroom, in front of your most senior colleagues, start by speaking up in smaller meetings with peers to see how it feels. And while you’re at it, see if you can recruit a close friend or colleague to offer advice and encouragement in advance of a challenging situation.

You may stumble, but that’s OK. In fact, it’s the only way you’ll learn, especially if you can appreciate that missteps are an inevitable — and in fact essential — part of the learning process. In the end, even though we might feel powerless in situations outside our comfort zone, we have more power than we think. So, give it a go. Be honest with yourself, make the behavior your own, and take the plunge. My guess is you’ll be pleased at having given yourself the opportunity to grow, learn, and expand your professional repertoire.

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