The trouble with learning…how fear holds us back, and what we can do about it

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The trouble with learning is that it requires us to acknowledge that we don’t know enough. Even worse, learning means we’re very likely to have to change something we don’t think needs changing. And, together, these truths scare us. They go against our nature and admitting to either is, at the very least, socially unattractive. We fear being exposed or showing our vulnerability. That’s not without good reason, for experience tells us that those admitting ignorance are often mocked or side-lined and those showing vulnerability often bullied.

So, if you’re reading this as a leader, you’ll see a dilemma: on the one hand, you are expected to know what to do in any given situation based on the experience and expertise you bring, and on the other hand, your ability to successfully navigate the challenges and complexity of business today depends on your own ongoing learning and the culture of openness and learning you inspire around you. And, with regard to the latter, how can you credibly encourage others to learn if you yourself do not demonstrate your own personal commitment to learning?

A precarious position

And what if you’re in the business of learning? Is this true for learning providers as well?

Sadly, yes, it is. Organisational learning can be a risky and expensive business, which explains why so many organisations – learning providers included – are so slow to embrace change.

Maintaining a kind of status quo is much more appealing than living the pain of transformation. For the well-established business schools providing a large proportion of executive education, if the business model is “kind-of” working then there is little incentive to stop doing what you’ve always done, especially if it gives you what you always got.

But there’s a growing and existential risk for learning providers to consider: competition. New learning models, new learning delivery channels and new learning providers are all becoming increasingly viable and prolific. Initially financially precarious, digital learning is revolutionising the business of “lifelong learning”.

We see individual learning increasing in popularity and becoming more of a private, personalised affair – thus mitigating the perceived risks of learning out loud or in public – especially now it is widely available, easily accessible and much more affordable.

Although the benefits of learning in a community remain, learners have many more options to choose from. As we hear about institutions frantically re-imagining their business models in response to a struggle for market share, as costs escalate, as freedom of movement curtails student numbers and competition from new providers increases, it’s hard not to be left with the impression that there is an existential crisis in the offing. And so we might reflect “do learning providers fear the very thing they promote: learning?”

Facing the fear, and being open to learning?

Partners at the FutureWork Forum have long argued that a “learning mindset” – that is an attitude of openness and possibility – is what determines success. Facing and ultimately overpowering our fear – of ignorance, of being exposed, of change, of failure – is where we need to channel our energy and this is what will create safe, growth-nurturing learning cultures.

This is a big ask at a time when the economics of learning are under huge pressure from social change and a global financial downturn. I suppose the alternative is denial… which when we look around we can see is a fairly popular option. I wonder why?

Encouraging a learning mindset

When we analyse what it takes to “always be learning” we can identify the characteristic values, attitudes, and behaviours of a learning mindset. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they don’t tend to be ones that are highly prized in today’s world and nor do they tend to be ones that are demonstrated by many of today’s leaders. It might not be fashionable to admit it but humility is right up there as one of the most important learning attributes.

Apart from notable voices such as Brené Brown and Ken Robinson, few people are known for eloquently and persuasively urging education professionals to have the courage to say “I don’t know, let’s find out”. It takes strength of character and a unique leader to swim against the tide by opening up, being consistently curious, and embracing the messiness and discomfort of our own learning.

Another important learning attribute is “vulnerability”, in other words being intentionally open to risk. Like humility, vulnerability is rarely rewarded and often penalised.

In a learning mindset, there is a paradox, of course: the humility and vulnerability needed for learning have to be accompanied by self-assurance, which is a tenacious determination and the self-confidence to ignore detractors. Balancing these two sides is extremely hard when you are part of a system that rewards confidence above competence and truthfulness.

‘How we learn is as important as what we learn’

How can we encourage a learning mindset? First and foremost, we need to recognise that how we learn is as important as what we learn. We need to strengthen trust and transparency in our workplaces and in the learning environments we create, taking care to establish and nurture the psychological safety that is essential for “ignorance” to be admissible, and for learning and experimentation to happen.

Much has been written about how learning needs to be fun, and it can be. Whether through gamification via smartphones, interactive learning approaches in the workshop room or serious play methodologies using tools such as Lego, learners can be motivated through modalities that stimulate curiosity and the appetite for learning.

Learning in a community requires trust

Learning in a community – whether virtual, at a distance and asynchronous or face to face and simultaneous – is a key pillar of effective learning design and delivery. This notion isn’t new – proponents of the social constructivist approach have been promoting it for at least 50 years – but what learning institutions need to do now is jump-start and prioritise the building of psychological safety in the learning environment, to ensure that the learning community is as diverse and as inclusive as possible.

This means that learning cohorts will likely need the investment of an experienced moderator or facilitator to set group norms and build trust, in other words, it will cost both time and money. The same goes for our workplaces; we know from recent research by organisations such as Google that psychological safety in the workplace is vital for business success and for high engagement.

Learning needs leadership and leadership needs learning

Given learning is about developing and changing attitudes as much as it is about developing or acquiring new knowledge or skills, the role of leaders is critically important and the tone they set can make or break a learning environment and the learning mindset.

Inspiring leaders are those that demonstrate humility and an openness to learning themselves, eager to ask open questions of those they lead and to admit they do not know everything. Arguably, humility is not necessary to be effective and gather followers, as many current political leaders demonstrate, but it is a key characteristic of leaders in high-performing teams. And we can perhaps be bolder in asserting that directive autocratic leadership based on instilling fear is much less likely to tolerate experimentation and failure than one where speaking up and learning from mistakes is not penalised.

A contextual caveat

Learning should never be the exclusive preserve of a privileged social or financial elite but making learning inclusive and widely distributed presents a whole new set of challenges. Of course – given the risks associated with learning – those who have reached a certain level of maturity, success and accumulated status or wealth may be the very ones most reluctant to learn for fear of losing what they have.

But as formal education becomes more expensive, it is distinctly possible that those hungry for change lose access. Those most in need may also hesitate to risk what little they have in order to learn and change. However, it was Drucker who said: “If you think training is expensive, try ignorance.” Although in the middle of the political chaos we might prefer the “bliss”’ of “ignorance,” in reality, our collective survival depends on learning and our ability to adapt and change.

Learning into the future

Looking ahead into the future, with its promise of artificial intelligence, big data, and virtual reality, we might be wondering how we will build meaningful social connections in learning communities. A growing number of chatbots seek to assist us and the path to accessible lifelong learning seems more complicated than ever.

As we head into unchartered territory, new and interesting conundrums face learning designers: how can inclusion be “designed-in”? how can bias be reduced by learning designers and coders who themselves are not a very diverse bunch?

Sure, we may have a lot to look forward to in terms of lower costs and increased access to learning but we also have a long way to go in terms of increasing uptake, especially among marginalised communities with low incomes, low connectivity and low opportunities.

In reality, those of us with the power to influence and accelerate change towards a more inclusive system must fulfil our responsibilities and ensure the benefits of lifelong learning are widely distributed. Naturally, this will be scary for some but withholding learning opportunities because we haven’t figured out how to make them available or out of fear of being overtaken or side-lined by enthusiastic and ambitious learners, is inexcusable.

Democratising learning

While the status quo exists, “lifelong learning” remains a privilege that many can only dream of. For those with the means and the benefit of a supportive enabling environment it can be easy to ignore this. Perhaps the true test of the mantra “always be learning” should be the extent to which the way is smoothed for others to enjoy the same opportunities as those with privilege. This is the responsibility of leadership.

Democratisation may be a tired and flawed metaphor these days but when it comes to learning, a shared common good must be our aim. Leaders must work to overcome inequality and concentrate on working to enable access, tackling head-on the fear that surrounds learning in every field. Our survival depends on it.

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