Putting a Culture of Learning to Work

culture of learning
Edgar Wilson

Edgar Wilson

Consultant at (Independent)
Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations and has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism. He is currently working as an independent analytical consultant.
Edgar Wilson

@@EdgarTwilson

Writer, consultant, and analyst jogging between politics, healthcare, education, and craft beer.
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Edgar Wilson

Leaders Can Help Cultivate A Culture Of Learning

 

It isn’t just Millennials new to the workforce who have a lot to learn. Even seasoned pros can still be caught off-guard by some of the transformations at work in the world today.

 

You don’t have to look far to see that everything is changing. One of the greatest, unavoidable challenges in the modern workplace is keeping ahead of the learning curve. Skills, industries, and technology move too fast for complacency. This is not a problem that can be solved by simply recruiting constantly—employees should be seen as an investment, and part of maintaining that investment is helping them confront today’s steep learning curve.

 

Preventing employees from being left behind—to say nothing of their productivity—requires constant learning, refreshing, and updating of skills and knowledge. It is as much a part of modern jobs as the work itself.

 

While leaders cannot take over learning on their employees’ behalf, they can help cultivate a culture of learning. When done correctly, this can reinforce a sense of team membership, keep employees up-to-date with the relevant skills, and most importantly, prevent burnout and low-morale, a sadly common side-effect of the learning-curve challenge.

So what are the key features of a healthy learning culture?

 

Humility:

 

Expertise is a moving target. Whether relying on the latest degree or years of on-the-job experience, knowledge can grow stale and irrelevant. This can be painfully humbling for some. In the healthcare industry, interruptive technologies like healthcare informatics (and the many new, complex responsibilities it has brought into play) have proven so intimidating, some doctors have planned to retire rather than try to keep up. After years of medical school, the prospect of retraining is just too much.

 

That is why it is critical for leaders to take the first step in choosing between being humbled or threatened by the learning challenge—it can make a world of difference in how everyone thinks about their own limits, and how they address them.

 

Leaders must exhibit humility—and encourage it in their team—to foster a sense of optimism that it is possible to stay relevant, innovative. No one person knows everything; experts—like doctors–are fallible; knowledge is changing, and it is worth learning new skills to keep up. Humility is realistic, and it is the first step in developing a willingness to learn. Viewing change as a threat is not responsive or adaptive—and modern workers must be.

 

We do battle with threats; we can learn from being humbled.

 

Curiosity:

 

If it takes humility to admit you don’t actually know everything, then it takes curiosity to stay excited about learning. Companies are at a heightened risk of employee frustration—the first step toward apathy—if they don’t foster curiosity. Expertise is fleeting, and requires renewal; in the engineering field, for example, it is estimated that it takes less than a decade for a college graduate’s knowledge to be outdated and archaic.

 

Learning is clearly not a one-time effort. Whether in school or on the job, there is so much to learn, we may as well get excited about finding new, better ways to do things, remain curious after each and every new lesson and experience.

 

To effectively lead a team through the disruptive changes—whether brought on by technology, new industry knowledge, or an evolving marketplace—requires inspiring them with curiosity. Learning challenges don’t have to just be bumps and obstacles in the road to success; they could be exciting new avenues, or even shortcuts. A great leader will choose an attitude of curiosity and enthusiasm, and demonstrate how embracing learning challenges can be enriching, rather than simply difficult.

 

Curiosity allows us to see both challenges and successes as short-term, and helps us continue moving forward.

 

Collaboration:

 

There are many benefits to fostering a team environment. When it comes to helping one another stay fresh and deal with emerging challenges, the team is critical. Whether commiserating or collaborating, the work is always easier when it feels shared.

 

Similarly, teams will be able to co-train, pass on helpful lessons and advice, and ensure that knowledge is shared. After all, given the rate of change, today’s expert may be tomorrow’s relic, and a team can only be as strong as its weakest member. By encouraging workers to lift one another up and tackle learning challenges together, the whole group will have an easier time keeping up.

 

The workplace is often a classroom, and that can be a good thing—as long as it does not become too competitive. Challenging each other to grow and learn is good; it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that such a competitive culture makes people feel like winners without punishing others as losers.

 

We learn best when knowledge is shared, rather than hoarded.

 

Appreciation:

 

Trying to stay relevant in many industries today can feel a lot like being a rat in a wheel: no matter how much effort we expend, it seems impossible to get ahead. When it is so challenging just to stay relevant, constant learning is often not enough to help individuals advance, and that is an unfortunate and sometimes unpleasant reality—for new and experienced workers alike.

Holding on to motivation requires they all have the opportunity to celebrate some successes, big and small alike. By demonstrating that, as a leader, you recognize and value the effort of your team to learn and apply new lessons, you add an intangible value to their work. People need to know their effort to keep their knowledge and skills fresh is worth it—especially if it isn’t leading directly to advancement.

 

Encouragement and recognition are key to helping workers maintain the drive to learn and grow consistently. Avoiding negative strategies (threats, withholding incentives, criticism) and instead emphasizing the positives that go along with learning (extra incentives, public recognition) can to make a challenging task seem more positive.

 

Constant learning may be a necessity, but it still warrants praise.

2 Comments

  • Edgar, I think you’ve captured some of the important elements of a learning culture and provided the categories for a learning culture job interview: Does the candidate exhibit humility, curiosity, collaboration, and appreciation of others?

  • Edgar Wilson says:

    A job interview, definitely, but also on-going evaluations. The skills needed for entry should also be cultivated for advancement, and visible at every level of an organization.

    Cheers!

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