Draw a letter E on your forehead with your finger. Seriously. Right now.
Did you draw it so that you could read it (from your orientation) or that someone else, someone looking at you could read it (which is called ‘other orientation’)?
This is a quick way of looking at leadership and power, as 88% of people with lower power status draw the E so that people looking at them can read it (e.g. other orientation) (from Ryan Smerek’s book Organizational Learning and Performance; the Science and Practice of Building a Learning Culture.
Leadership and power are just one element to look at when you want to build a vibrant learning culture. Here are some other things to keep top of mind to do just that, including a handy checklist.
But first, why should we spend any of our precious time and resources on learning culture?
Because a vibrant learning culture supports a learning organization which supports individual, organizational and community development. Talk about bang for your buck.
Because our context is screaming for healthy learning cultures. And by context I mean:
- We are smack in the age of learning. Learning is everything.
- Never before has there been so much global influence and interdependence, which begets learning.
- The massive presence and influence of technology both requires learning and can significantly assist learning.
- Mobility has also never been so commonplace, which, you guessed it, requires learning like never before.
- We can easily get stuck in a competency trap, where we do no more than the basics, whereas learning can get us unstuck and into the stratosphere.
Those being some of the reasons why learning and a healthy learning culture are so vital these days, it can be difficult to pin down what a good learning culture looks like. Which is why I created this checklist for you.
A vibrant learning culture has the following qualities. See how many your learning culture does or doesn’t possess.
Ten qualities for a vibrant, healthy learning culture:
- It’s widespread (throughout the entire organization and ideally stretches into the community)
- Customized; the learning culture’s content, delivery, and access/inclusion are all highly specified for the organization.
- It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s linked to the organizational goals/ strategies
- Diverse people; for example learning ambassadors, vendors, thought leaders etc. (Jason Wingard in Learning to Succeed, Rethinking Corporate Education in a World of Unrelenting Change)
- Diverse delivery; a wide range of delivery mechanisms are used such as trainers, coaches, mentors, blogs, roundtables, conferences, trainings, etc.
- There is diverse learning content; from specific job readiness skills to what I call the 7 C’s (creativity, con res, communication, collaboration, culture, change, celebration skills)
- Technology is maximized in the content, delivery and transfer of learning
- There is a culture of development and accountability
- Learning is valued, expected, rewarded, assessed
- High degree of engagement, motivation, accountability
How did you do? How many of the qualities does your organization possess?
Now that you’ve thought about that let’s focus on how to grow your learning culture.
Smerek shares that thinking disposition which foster learning are something to aim for, specifically:
- Growth mindset (as opposed to fixed)
- Curiosity “Curiosity is an appetite for knowledge, a drive like thirst or hunger” (Smerek). New York Times columnist Adam Bryant’s research on hundreds of CEOs showed that ‘passionate curiosity’ was top of the list for being successful.
- Achievement orientation is one of the 3 human needs (power and affiliation are the others) and is a mix of developing competence, outperforming and avoiding failure.
- Intellectual humility is the “effective calibration of what you don’t know”
But of course thinking dispositions aren’t enough to build a healthy learning culture.
Here are 5 other key parts of the learning culture puzzle:
- Big picture thinking. Having a compelling future vision and thinking big actually uses different neural systems and makes us more open to learning from negative feedback and less defensive (can I get an amen! How cool is that?!). It’s the difference between –
- I’m working vs.
- I’m building a wall vs.
- I’m building a cathedral vs.
- I’m supporting my community to learn how to build and customize inclusive places of worship
- Transparent organization. A transparent organization leads to psychological safety. One study Smerek writes about shows the ration for positive comments to negative comments for high performing teams is almost 6:1 (for every 1 negative comment, there are 6 positive comments). Whereas for low performing teams it’s 0.3:1. That’s a difference of 16! This isn’t rocket science. It’s ensuring that positive comments are commonplace.
Coincidentally, with all we’re learning about how the brain works, this type of atmosphere has emotional consequences. It prevents amygdala hijacking which is when the two small amygdalas in your brain drop into fight, freeze or flee mode and is where anything BUT learning happens.
- Looking through the lens of change. There are barriers and resistance to learning. And these tend to fall into cost and culture. Examine and address the economic and resource cost to your learning culture. And look for cultural barriers, which Wingard says can be:
- Limited traditions (this is not how we do things around here)
- Failed previous attempts (we tried that before and it didn’t work)
- Organizational inertia and success complacency (we’re fine just as we are)
- The developmental stage of the organization (startup, growth or mature) doesn’t match the attempted learning culture
- Lack of executive buy-in
- Lack of staff buy-in (current skills are threatened and lack of trust)
- Learning from failure. We can learn a lot from failure and successful learning cultures focus on their own failures. From learning from HRO’s (high reliability organizations, for example nuclear plants, where failure can be catastrophic and is to be avoided at all costs), to breaking the code of silence (hushing up and hiding failure), to blameless reporting and even celebrating failure. Smerek writes about a crewmember who reported losing a tool on the deck of an aircraft carrier ship (which could cause a plane landing on the ship to crash) being celebrated, yes celebrated, for reporting the loss.
It’s human nature that when WE fail we tend to blame the situation, whereas when someone ELSE fails we see them as incompetent. Learning from failure looks at the situation, the context and the systems that caused the issue and then moves forward with a fix.
- Leading as teaching. Great learning cultures weave learning into everything and everyone. For example, Jack Welch, the famous former CEO of GE, who had a massive focus on learning, had 2×2 cards for all staff that included both their values (an example of big picture thinking) and personal performance (an example of transparency). All leaders in great learning organizations have a responsibility to pass on their learning via teaching.
So back to the beginning, think about that E on your forehead and specifically, think of other orientation.
How can you build a vibrant learning culture in your organization, in your team?
- Know that a vibrant learning culture is vital first and foremost; it supports organizations, individual and community development
- Our age of learning, global influenced, technology pervasive, mobile, competency trapped context is yearning for you to build a healthy learning culture
- Determine where you’re currently at with regards to your learning culture via my 10 qualities checklist
- Then dive into growth, curiosity, achievement and intellectual humility mindsets
- And finally add in the five other puzzle pieces; big picture thinking, transparency, change, learning from failure and leading as teaching.
Now go and learn, laugh and lead.
See the Learning and Development Roundtable session I led on Learning Culture and/or view the PowerPoint deck from the same session, which this post is based on.
Check out the resources I used for this post:
- Learning to Succeed; rethinking corporate education in a world of unrelenting change by Jason Wingard
- Organizational Learning and Performance; the science and practice of building a learning culture by Ryan Smerek
Check out this unusual way to curate learning; Imagine you’re a professional clown for a minute (and other ways to look at learning culture)
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Let me know if I can help you with your learning culture. Let’s dig in.