January 21, 2018

Enabling learning—it’s all about the egos

Group of professional peopleRead the literature on organizational learning and you’ll find convincing descriptions of how fear or embarrassment impedes learning by individuals and teams. When something doesn’t turn out as expected, it’s a very human reaction to seek to cover up the failing—to step past it somehow—and then cover up that we’ve done that.

Repeat the process a few times and we enter the territory of what some people “skilled incompetence,” artful ways of consistently protecting ourselves from threat at the expense of inhibiting our learning. (This is Chris Argyris country.) Sure we might really be in danger, but usually, we overdo the fear and the embarrassment beyond the likely consequences.

In short…

Our egos make us defensive and get in the way of our learning. Now, we need our egos, because if we didn’t have them, we couldn’t function.

But they need managed…

Much of the literature advocates process approaches to overcoming these difficulties i.e. thinking head stuff—clever intellectual and conversational techniques to address the problem.

Really there’s an easier way…

Get the human connection right with your team and you’ll assuage the egos and neutralize the fear and embarrassment, thus enabling the learning they truly need.

Get the humanity right with yourself and you’ll sooth your own ego, and let in the learning you truly need.

The making of Gold Medal performance

Jessica EnnisWatching interviews with Gold Medal winners and other Olympic high performers, it’s striking how most of them seem thoroughly pleasant and even ordinary people – very far from the sometime stereotype of winner as warrior. In short, they are profoundly human.

Sure, in the background, there may well be a coach demanding ever higher effort. And it seems that bringing a little more aggression into his game has made a difference for Andy Murray, for example.

Older hands talk about experience bringing the presence of mind to deliver absolute performance as well as winning medals. Younger heads instead sometimes stopping at “merely” beating their rivals.

What this got to do with leadership and people and change and the everyday?

Are top athletes leaders? In the sense of influencing others, and so stimulating change, they clearly are.

So here’s the thing…

The most inspirational Gold Medal winners combine both power and humanity. Neither is enough on its own, for them or for us.

Looking for some guiding principles? Try Jimmy Reid’s – ‘Clyde-built’ to travel the world.

In the West of Scotland yesterday was celebrated a life well-lived and an example to us all – Jimmy Reid (1932 – 2010).  To think of the former Clyde shipbuilder as speaking only to a left-wing audience would be to miss the point.

I was nine at the time of Jimmy Reid’s celebrated Rectorial Address at Glasgow University on Friday 28th April, 1972 and so too young to remember the coverage directly.  I had regarded Jimmy Reid since ‘as one of the good guys’ and a decent man, without really knowing the detail.  Only on his passing and the re-publication of the text of his speech, did I realise how universal his message is; how it speaks to all people and all places and all times, including our own.

To say the speech made the front pages would be an understatement: it was printed in full in the New York Times and described there as “the greatest speech since President Lincoln’s Gettysburg address”.  If you’re not familiar with the content, I commend it to you.

The full text of the speech is at http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_167194_en.pdf

The most celebrated theme rejects the inevitably of the ‘rat race’…

 “[The problem] is the widespread and implicit acceptance of the concept and term, ‘the rat race’.  … To the students I address this appeal – reject these attitudes – reject the values and false morality that underline these attitudes.  A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement.  It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit.  This is how it starts, and, before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat pack. The price is too high.  Or as Christ puts it:  ‘What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?’”

Jimmy Reid also believed in the great untapped potential of people…

“To measure social progress purely by material advance is not enough.  Our aim must be the enrichment of the whole quality of life.  It requires a social and cultural, or if you wish, a spiritual transformation of our country.

“To unleash the latent potential of our people requires that we give them responsibility.  The untapped resources of the North Sea are as nothing compared to the untapped resources of our people.  I am convinced that the great mass of our people go through life without even a glimmer of what they could have contributed to their fellow human beings.  This is a personal tragedy.  It’s a social crime.  The flowering of each individual’s personality and talents is the pre-condition for everyone’s development…

“The whole object [of education] must be to equip and educate people for life, not solely for work or a profession…

“My conclusion is to reaffirm what I hope and certainly intend to be the spirit permeating this address. It’s an affirmation of faith in humanity.  All that is good in man’s heritage involves recognition of our common humanity, an unashamed acknowledgement that man is good by nature.

These extracts barely convey the whole power of the address.

Commentators say that the speech has endured because ‘of the substance, because he put feeling and spirituality at the heart of it, and he meant it’.  Perhaps that’s key to more than the success of a speech.

Tremendous.  A great inspiration.