February 23, 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 trouble with “gaming” the system

Three people in discussionThe meeting starts in the late afternoon—to prepare for the big one the following day. The purpose is to “spin” the numbers to get the outcome we want in the meeting tomorrow; to construct an argument based on the data to influence the other side; to get them to agree to the proposal that suits us best.

Just the stuff of a typical negotiation you may think. And I would agree with you.

But there’s something to be aware of….

If we and the other side are part of a larger enterprise—and so in a symbiotic relationship (and aren’t we always)—too much manipulating of the data means our shared model of how the enterprise works won’t be valid, that’s if we have a shared view at all.

Here’s the thing…

Without a shared and accurate model of how the bigger system is working, the enterprise—the collective team—won’t be able to learn, and it won’t respond effectively to changes in its environment. Without seeing things properly, it has no hope of any breakthrough, to paraphrase Joshua Cooper Ramo. One of the preconditions for organizational learning will be missing. In the long run that will hurt us all.

If you’re tempted to play games with the numbers—to “game” the system—just be aware that you’ll be sacrificing long-term viability for short-term gain.

How inspirational is a leader that “games” the system? Maybe to a degree, but only to a degree. The truly masterful might have no need.

The head or the heart, where do you start?

Three people in a meeting, two shaking handsProgress on anything challenging typically needs a balance of head and heart perspectives; some emotional intelligence alongside the logic and rationale of the numbers and the processes. Neither on their own will be sufficient.

But where to start? Where to meet the other people involved?

With the head stuff, or the heart stuff?

With professional and business people brought up to “use their heads,” it often seems to make sense to meet them in that left-brain place that is so familiar, and then lead them to an emotional perspective once a level of trust is established.

With other individuals, less conditioned to be “professional”, beginning right from the heart might well work better. Or maybe that’s better in every case.

Does it depend on the context? The same individual in different circumstances might respond differently.

Perhaps the key is to connect with the person, one way or another, starting where they’re most comfortable, and then lead them to the other.

What do you think? Where do you begin—in your head or in your heart? It makes a difference.

When you go into “dialogue,” are you ready for change?

Three people in discussionOne inevitably leads to the other, or should…

Mark is fighting his corner well. Back and forth goes the debate. Mark concedes little. He comes away with most of what he wants. All are tired out and the other side have doubts about engaging with him again. Even now, no-one really understands the whole problem.

John seeks joint learning about an issue. All contribute from their knowledge and experience without taking positions. John insists that all make their assumptions explicit. He leads by example. A mutual understanding of the problem develops. New solutions emerge. John comes away with a little less than Mark in the short run, but the long term result is much greater.

In the jargon of organizational learning, mediation and other fields, Mark is engaged in “discussion” and John is in “dialogue.” With complex problems, dialogue stands the best chance of finding a good solution. The clarity that results is also vital to organizational learning.

So far, so familiar maybe. You probably advocate dialogue yourself.

But here’s the thing…

When we say we want a dialogue about an issue, have we realized that means opening the door to our own change and growth? After all, if the point of dialogue is learning (which it is), then chances are, we’re going to be doing some of the learning, including about our own selves maybe.

If not, are the others going to do all the learning and all the changing? That implies we’re already complete. That’s not likely, surely. In truth, it implies we’re still wedded to our position.

We could make progress by looking to our own learning.

Does dialogue lead to change and growth in your experience? How open to that are you, when you say you want a dialogue?

Is individual learning enough to deliver organizational learning?

You’ve heard it before. You might even have said it yourself…

“Training doesn’t work.”


“When I get back to the workplace, I find it very hard to apply what I’ve learned.”

These can be opposite sides of the same coin – a disconnect between individual learning and organizational learning.

The thing is…

We can train as many individuals as we like in new skills, but if the organization doesn’t learn anything, the organization’s overall behavior and performance won’t change.

So what has to happen for an organization to learn?

Peter Senge, a leading authority in this area, would say there needs to be a shared vision of a compelling future; shared models and understanding of how things work; unbiased dialogue; an understanding of the systemic and dynamic nature of things (in which cause and effect may be separated in both time and space); and personal acceptance of both responsibility for outcomes and the need to improve personal performance, which he calls “personal mastery”.

In balder terms, the leaders of the organization need to go on a learning journey together and take a critical mass of the workforce along with them.

Peter’s prescription shows why “gaming” the system can be so damaging to progress because it makes learning by the organization and the wider enterprise impossible. His conditions are not met when players manipulate things for their own ends. Examples are all around.

He also says that the key enabler of the conditions for organizational learning is the quality of the relationships amongst the participants.

So you might like this reminder…

Take care to distinguish between individual learning and organizational learning. If you want the latter to occur, you might need to deliver more than just the former.

And you might like to apply your skill in relationships to the organizational learning on which we all depend.

How strong is the connection between individual learning and organizational learning in your world?