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What does it mean to learn?

This isn't a trick question, but a serious inquiry. I believe that learning happens at three levels in any organization: the individual level, the team level and the organizational level. Higher levels of learning are not necessarily the sum of individual or team learning, but a dynamic and evolutionary way that people come together to accomplish something.

Individuals can learn by reading a book, writing a paper, talking with others, and reflecting internally. Teams and organizations cannot learn by reading or writing. Given that teams and organizations are comprised of individuals, learning occurs in the spaces between the people — through interaction, dialogue and debate.

Apparently the Center for Disease Control counted on reading and writing as learning tools to protect against Ebola outbreaks, sending their protocol to healthcare providers to read and implement. I suspect that the two nurses who cared for Mr. Duncan would agree with me that reading the protocol wasn’t enough. Thankfully, in most organizations, we don’t face life and death situations, but perhaps there is a lesson for us to learn from this horrible situation so that we can avoid falling into the trap of thinking that simply communicating a change in behavior is sufficient to actually enact behavior change. 

Even without dire situations facing us, we do find ourselves needing to change behavior. Take, for example, those in leadership positions. As a leader, our behavior must change the moment we accept the role. We now have responsibility for the work, the people, and the results. That is a sobering responsibility, to have so much hinging on our leadership skill.

Yet we send new leaders into their roles without helping them to learn how to lead.  We may communicate to them the content that they need to know. We may even do a really good job of teaching them how to budget, complete performances reviews, and allocate other administrative work. Rarely have I seen organizations that help a new leader learn leadership behaviors, though.

Changing behavior requires practice, reflection, feedback and more practice, particularly when the behaviors are contrary to someone’s instinct, or are difficult to carry out. Helping someone learn these behaviors requires a systematic, consistent process of stating clear expectations, establishing consequences, and allowing the new leader to practice in a safe space.

What happens if a new leader is not given the opportunity to learn? She may have great instincts or have looked up to and observed a great leader. She may not have the instincts or role models. Everything that an organization accomplishes is through people, and leaders are in the unique position to either motivate or stagnate a group of people. Is leadership of the people of an organization something with which we want to take a chance?

Perhaps had the CDC realized the significance of the behavioral change required by the Ebola protocol, they may have sent advisors to help ensure that the learning was, in fact, taking place when the first case appeared. Like the CDC promulgating a protocol document and expecting that everyone will do the right thing and take it upon himself or herself to learn and practice, we cannot leave leadership skill to chance. It is too important to the success of our organizations.

Photo: Can Stock