Embracing a Learning Culture

Received job tasking this morning to provide feedback to headquarters consolidating tools, resources, initiatives, and best practices that complement a “Culture of Excellence.” I found the tasking striking for two reasons. First, relating to a book I’m currently reading, “The Evolution of Everything: How Culture Emerges” by Matt Ridley, trying to identify and engineer culture changes from the top-down is a failing effort. Many leaders are unwilling or unable to accept that many ideas, whether culture, language, or ideas, develop and evolve from the bottom-up. In many cases, there is no engineer or architect directing the efforts of the lesser entities. The bottom-up concept is hard to accept for many because we want to see cause and effect. Most are unwilling to accept that some things just are.

The second reason I found this tasking interesting is that included in the tasking was an internal study conducted of industry-leading companies. This study identified the attributes and characteristics of organizations that embrace a learning environment. Leaders of these companies also cite that it is impossible to focus efforts are multiple areas of culture, but rather by focusing on one area of culture, learning or safety for example, they would often see dividends in other areas of culture, such as productivity or morale. By establishing well thought out goals, and reinforcing “correct” behavior, culture was able to slowly evolve.

The tasker I received strikes at the heart of a top-down approach where leaders want to identify the “tools, resources, initiatives, and best practices” so that they can be emulated. While the intention is good, I strongly feel that a bottom-up approach is more effective. Furthermore, the “Industry Best Practices and Learning Culture” materials highlight that a key component in any learning culture change is Leadership.

Where psychological safety was discussed as a precondition for realizing a true learning culture, leadership was cited as its most important criterion. Without the right leaders, culture change and other large, transformative initiatives are likely to fail. The corporate leaders prioritized finding top talent and stressed the need for organizations to acknowledge that effective leadership is a skillset of its own. Technical competence is not, in itself, enough to merit promotion to a leadership position. Only the best and most ideally suited leaders consistently live the values and exhibit the desired behaviors of the organization, properly engage and coach employees, create and communicate a sense of purpose, and define and execute the vision of these companies. These leaders are genuine in their approach to the obligations of leadership, taking pride in their ability to positively influence and develop their employees, and by extension, the trajectory of the organization. In identifying these traits and promoting the leaders who exemplify them, organizations nurture loyalty to the institution in a self-reinforcing cycle.

 While the leadership described above can be inspirational, truly “transformational” leadership requires an additional step. The corporate leaders explained that leaders who are self-aware are the best types of leaders – those who are able to not only notice performance trends in their employees and provide effective feedback, but are also able and eager to receive the same type of feedback. After establishing psychological safety and human factors as a foundation, transformative leaders further differentiate themselves by embracing the practice of self-awareness. Where other managers merely accumulate knowledge and feedback, truly effective leaders go beyond. These high performers are able to overcome the mental blocks others commonly display when receiving criticism, such as defensiveness or self-justification. These successful leaders accept, internalize/acknowledge, and take action to correct identified shortcomings or blind spots. They constantly re-define themselves, acquiring new ideas, perspectives, and skills, while jettisoning others that are no longer relevant.

Thank you Jocko and Extreme Ownership for highlighting that all problems can be solved by leadership. It takes a special person to be a true leader. A true leader must be humble, self-aware, and most importantly, must be willing to take ownership of everything in their world. The study goes on to further stress the importance of failure in a strong learning culture. Chris Argyris from “Teaching Smart People How to Learn” (Harvard Business Review, May-June 1991) says:

“Put simply, because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism, and put the “blame” on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most.”

One final thought; try to keep things simple, not easy. Thanks again Jocko. (Extreme Ownership Fundamentals). Instead of focusing on the tools, processes, and best practices of other High Performing Organizations, take some easy advice from The Armed Forces Officer, and treat everyone with dignity and respect. Make employees feel important, define their tasks clearly, and eliminate the roadblocks in their way to execute. “Happy” workers are more productive, but satisfaction, whether professional or personal, comes from having control of your destiny, being free to encounter some failure along the way, and being a stakeholder in your company’s success.

Organizations falter in creating a culture of engagement when they solely approach engagement as an exercise in making their employees feel happy…Happiness is a great starting point, but just measuring workers’ satisfaction or happiness levels and catering to their wants often fail to achieve the underlying goal of employee engagement: improved business outcomes. Organizations have more success with engagement and improve business performance when they treat employees as stakeholders of their future and the company’s future. They put the focus on concrete performance management activities, such as clarifying work expectations, getting people what they need to do their work, providing development, and promoting positive coworker relationships.

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