For more than ten years I’ve been working intensively to support the development of effective learning with hundreds of organisations. Over time, I became increasingly fascinated about the impact leaders in these organisations were having on learning culture within their teams. Sometimes this was intentional and positive, but in many cases, it was the opposite. The question I pondered was, ‘what is it that leaders who’ve created an effective learning culture in their teams doing, that their less effective peers are not?’ And why wouldn’t, given the potential benefits that learning can bring, all leaders want to nurture this culture? After all, unless we are open to learning, with all that that brings, we are vulnerable to the ever-increasing pace of change. As Eric Hoffer wrote, ‘In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.’
As a result of my research, it became apparent that there are three major barriers that really undermine the growth of a learning culture in organisations. Not only this, but the presence of these barriers can also inhibit the impact of any formal learning programmes too.
- Processing Overload – ‘Learning? We haven’t got time for it!’ is a classic symptom of processing overload. A feeling, for perhaps different reasons, that the time or energy for learning and improvement is not available. On an unconscious level too, processing overload can hamper learning. This is the problem caused by incorrect filtering of new information – again because there isn’t the bandwidth to process all the new learning. Sometimes processing overload is caused by the pace of operations, but it can also be due to the lack of opportunities to collaborate and gain a deep, shared clarity about the why? what? and how? of the organisation. I’d go as far as to say that every successful leader that I’ve had the privilege of working with, has determinedly focussed on tackling the problem of processing overload by having a ‘stop’ list as well as a to-do-list.
- Low Relational Trust – Relational trust is crucial for learning to take place. High trust within a team is like oxygen for learning. Consider a working relationship you’ve experienced where trust was lacking. In such relationships, individuals can be less willing to ask questions when they are unclear. It can make them fearful about making mistakes or how they are perceived by others. Where problems or misunderstandings arise, there is the risk that individual rush to blame others instead of seeking solutions. Finally, low trust can lead to reticence about the seeking, as well as the giving, of honest feedback.
- Perception-Reality Gaps – Perception gaps compare an individual’s assessment of their own performance with the reality. Where individuals overestimate or underestimate their performance, the net result is that they may become closed to learning. For those who overrate their performance, perhaps due to an over-developed ego, they ‘know’ there is no compelling need to improve, because they are more than comfortable with their level of performance. This overrating of performance can infect whole teams and organisations too, often with hugely damaging effects. On the other hand, those who underrate their performance often lack confidence and even resist or ignore feedback that might counter their perception because they don’t think they will be up to coping with additional learning. The Imposter Syndrome can have a similarly negative effect on an individuals’ openness to learning.
I’ve found is that these barriers rarely are found in isolation. Where
processing overload is inhibiting learning, relational trust issues can often
be found too. Team members frequently attribute the causes of processing
overload to the perceived failings of their leaders. Similarly where there isn’t shared clarity
about what high performance represents, then there is a greater risk of
perception gaps opening.
 Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 22.
Latest posts by Mark Burns (see all)
- The barriers that undermine the growth of a learning culture in organisations - August 22, 2019
- Making Learning ‘Stickier’ - October 16, 2018