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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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To Seize the Future, Create a Leadership Circle

A global pharmaceutical company was about to lose the strategic advantage of several blockbuster drugs coming off patent. In five years, the revenue shortfall would be significant. The senior commercial and scientific directors formed a “circle of leaders” comprised of 23 senior managers who had no meaningful history of collaboration on strategic initiatives. The hope was that the diversity of brainpower and perspectives would yield imaginative ways to outgrow the shortfall.

An international media firm that successfully moved from print to internet nonetheless faced new competition from the likes of Google and Buzzfeed. Although its readership was at historic highs, the CEO was determined to double its subscription base over the next five years. So the chiefs of strategy and technology formed a unique circle of peers — 18 diverse members from across the organization whose task over the next six months was to ask and answer what they felt were the most pressing strategic questions facing the company.

This kind of approach to special challenges that companies face is new. But the problem of getting different parts of organizations to talk meaningfully with one another is old.

When Lee Iacocca became CEO of Chrysler, here’s what he found: “Chrysler didn’t really function like a company at all. Chrysler in 1978 was like Italy in the 1860’s — the company consisted of a cluster of little duchies, each one run by a prima donna. It was a bunch of mini empires, with nobody giving a damn about what anyone else was doing…. Everybody worked independently.”

Such extreme non-communication inside companies today is rare. However, equally rare is tapping into the minds of a group of imaginative, open-minded employees and managers to scope out potential strategic opportunities. That, in brief, is the concept of a leadership circle.

Many leaders turn to their direct reports for guidance. While a natural inclination, this group is (by design) representative of current operating units and functions, which often have a status quo to defend. Then, too, this group likely has deep expertise in today’s core skills and advantages, yet little or no knowledge of the novel opportunities outside their realm. Lastly, this group may be more attuned to individual interests (including performance metrics and compensation incentives) rather than the collective and longer-term needs of the firm. In short, today’s existing leadership structure, expertise and purpose are designed to address today’s challenges — not tomorrow’s.

Creating a leadership circle is a step toward addressing these shortfalls. To be clear about a few things up front: This is not a call for organizational restructuring, nor is it the adding of another layer of management or the establishment of a new committee per se. Instead, this is about bringing people together (regardless of their current roles and responsibilities) to focus explicitly on a future opportunity that is central to the long-term viability of the company. The mission of the circle of leaders is to think differently about the future, to be aspirational while intentionally challenging the status quo.

To start, create a diverse ad hoc team of 15–18 people from throughout the company to work together for about six months. There could be C-suite participation, but only as peers; the CEO and board members are excluded. The purpose of the circle is to share perspectives and explore possibilities on no more than three critically important questions facing the company. For example, a typical question might be around how the competitive landscape is morphing and who competitors might be in the future — and what the company will need to do to prepare for such an exigency. Or the circle might ask what new products or services the company could capably provide to maneuver into an entirely new marketplace. The only questions the circle should avoid are what to do about current operational problems.

Thus, the circle is more a “community of engagement” rather than a standing committee. Within the circle, each member holds equal status and should not feel that he or she is being asked to represent the point of view of accounting, sales, shipping, or whatever the home department. Moreover, its focus should not be on day-to-day operations; in fact, it should be quite the opposite. The only commonality to be stressed for this assignment is that all must be eager to think about the future of the company. The only contract between members is that they be open, honest, and committed to considering the ideas of others.

Second, adopt the rule that, for this assignment, conflict is encouraged. What should be encouraged is conflict, not warfare. Personal attacks, dismissive criticisms, harsh invectives, rolling eyes — all are unacceptable behaviors for the circle. What’s needed is a way to enhance, even exploit, the value of the diversity in the room. The best way to do that is to allow people to say, for example, that while they appreciate the views of others in the room, here’s another (and quite possibly, opposing) way to think about the question at hand. All should think of themselves as stewards of the company. Thus, the acceptance of disagreement as a natural (and desirable) consequence of a diverse set of perspectives on current affairs or future possibilities will provide positive fuel for constructive conflict.

A leadership circle is of little value to a business if people cannot openly disagree without being disagreeable. If the circle has been carefully assembled from a diverse group, it’s important to put that diversity to work as long as everyone agrees that it’s the future of the company, not this ad hoc circle, that unites everyone.

Lastly, since the circle has no formal authority and since it does not control any resources, its value depends on capturing what’s been learned and sharing it, especially upwards. While no leadership circle is designed to provide clear-cut, cogent strategic directions for the company, the chances are that it will generate some viewpoints that perhaps have never been heard, especially at the C-suite and board levels. Such viewpoints could, in turn, generate more fresh, innovative thinking — and from that, new corporate vistas might easily emerge.

One of the biggest mistakes the leadership of any company can make is to suppress imagination and creative thinking. Whatever ideas come out of a leadership circle should be handled in the same way they were generated: the ideas should be rigorously and systematically discussed, debated, and explored. Too often, structure and rank inside companies devolve into unhealthy deference to those at the top. C-suite players may be bright, talented, and hard-working; but they are also more than likely overworked and too invested in what’s happening today or what transpired last year. No senior executive can possibly have a monopoly on what might happen in the future that could affect the company’s survival.

A leadership circle is a unique engagement of members of the corporate family. It is a thinking-intensive forum created to expand horizons and raise new possibilities. One business unit director for the media company commented to me that, after the first few meetings of the leadership circle, discussions were happening that had been previously missing from all past strategic dialogues. “We simply had never had a forum for having such discussion among peers from across the organization,” he shared with me one day, “and once we got started, the benefits became evident to all of us.” With a universal need for companies to find new ways to either take existing corporate capabilities and move them in new directions or to start developing the capabilities required to keep the company moving forward, forming circles may be the best way to start solving that need.

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