I was recently asked to reflect for a Round Table Insights https://roundtableinsights.com/ article for a conference I will be speaking at later tonight, Thursday 28 October, 2021.
I am grateful to be sharing my views with a largely European audience – and if you’d like to join – please see ticketing information at the end of this article.
For now, please enjoy this read, as I explore the real impact a learning culture can have on an individual and an organisation.
Developing a learning culture amidst leadership is critical to building adaptive and resilient organisations. In the shifting sands of the current post COVID-era market, leaders and organisations who adapt quickly to rapidly changing market conditions radically increase their chances of not just surviving, but thriving.
In workplaces, we take our behavioural cues from our leaders. Increasing the capacity of the leadership group to learn, grow and improve influences the way all other teams in the business interact; making it safe to innovate, question assumptions and learn from mistakes.
Learning is hard
Learning is essential to survival for individuals and groups – both from an evolutionary perspective and from an organisational perspective.
Peter Senge (1990) popularised the concept of the ‘learning organisation’ in which he emphasises the importance of establishing the capacity for learning, thinking and integrating to occur both top-down and bottom-up in order to “harness the collective genius” (Senge, 2006, p.766) of the organisation. At the heart of his idea, Senge proposes that an organisation requires in its design a way to learn about itself so that it can identify the norms, assumptions and behaviours that stifle creativity and lead to poor performance.
On the surface, learning sounds like an enjoyable exercise. But the reality of learning is that it can be deeply unsettling. All learning represents change – change at the individual level and change at the collective level. On an individual level, learning is both a process of reorganising our mental maps, and of working through emotions that are aroused when the security of “knowing” is threatened. Aristotle famously wrote “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”
Learning involves challenging and questioning assumptions, beliefs, values and accepted norms. “To learn, and thereby to change, is like a mini-death to a known way of being” (Bain, 1998, p.416). However, in order for new learning to be gained, something old must be lost. Inherent in the process of learning, is the concurrent process of letting go.
The challenge, however, is that the space of ‘not knowing’ is uncomfortable at best, and at worst, completely avoided. To willingly move into a space of ‘not knowing’ seems antithetical to what is commonly expected of leaders and managers in modern organisations, who need to be ‘in the know’ at all times. To learn is to be comfortable with being vulnerable.
For a number of years, I ran thee-day mindful leadership retreats in the beautiful coastal town of Byron Bay, Australia, for executives and business owners who wanted to reconnect with their personal values in how they worked and lived. In the opening session of the retreat, I would share with the group that to let learning in, to truly change behaviour, we must be prepared to let go of some firmly held belief, some ‘certainty’ that we had been holding onto. At the start of the retreat I would share the story of Shiva – a powerful Hindu deity who’s role is to destroy the universe in order to re-create it (massive oversimplification of Shiva – please forgive me!). When we push past what we know in order to come to know – we invoke Shiva.
Failing to fail is a failure
Professor Amy Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization. By far my favourite quote from her book is that ‘failing to fail is a failure’!
Professor Edmondson demonstrates that in workplaces where it’s safe to learn from mistakes, people experience high degrees of psychological safety, and this is a critical cultural factor determining whether leadership and strategy will ultimately impact performance. She says psychological safety is ‘a culture in which people are comfort- able expressing and being themselves’.
To thrive in the new age, growth will be driven by ideas, ingenuity, collaboration. Growth will be driven by speaking up. The problem that Professor Edmondson’s research revealed is that people are holding back too often. They do this because of interpersonal risk. Where interpersonal risk is high, the risk of being admonished or blamed for a mistake or missed opportunity causes people to withhold crucial information and this not only stifles both creativity and learning, but creates internal politics.
Most of the time we want to look smart, capable and helpful. We don’t want to look ignorant, incompetent or disruptive by asking questions, admitting to mistakes, making suggestions or questioning a plan. But we must take these risks to create value – for our customers, our teams and ourselves.
Leadership is the greatest culture lever
Modelling behaviour starts at the very top and cascades through the entire organisation. To build psychological safety – the best place to start is with the leadership team. How leaders interact influences how every other team in the business interacts. When the leadership team establishes a culture of high trust and respect, where it is safe to challenge assumptions, admit mistakes, own up to results and place high value on learning; the scene is set for all others in the business to do the same.
We take our behavioural cues from our leaders. Human Synergistics, a global research organisation, calls this the leadership – culture – performance connection. There is a circular relationship between leadership and culture: leaders influence culture, and culture influences leadership. The interplay between them drives performance.
When leadership teams work to create psychological safety – they increase their chances of finding team synergy – where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – where they can achieve much more together than they would be able to on their own.
Bain, A. (1998). Social Defenses Against Organizational Learning. Human Relations, 51(3), 413-429.
Edmonson, A. (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation and growth. John Wiley & Sons, US.
Senge, P. M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.
Thu, Oct 28, 2021, 7:00 PM –Fri, Oct 29, 2021, 1:00 AM Australian Eastern Daylightsavings Time
I will be on stage from 7.10pm to 8.10pm
Online tickets available – click here https://www.eventbrite.com/e/strategic-leadership-for-sustainable-growth-tickets-166635139187