The challenges of creating a genuine learning culture in organisations

 The world in which we live has never been more challenging. People often talk about it being VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex & ambiguous). The complexity of ever-greater interdependency – political, social, cultural, or environmental – is in the news every day. This means that to be successful, organisations must be populated by leaders who are fully aware of, and able to rise to these challenges. They must empower and nurture their team members to be equipped to handle whatever is thrown at them next. Both the willingness and ability to learn and innovate has never been more important – not just in products and services, but, just as importantly, in the systems and processes that we utilise to realise them. Knowledge flow, too, must be optimal – we can’t afford to maintain the silos we’ve built up and ignored for years. We must maximise efficiency and use of resources across typical boundaries.

The reality for most organisations, however, doesn’t reflect this. Any L&D or HR conference worth its salt will include presentations demonstrating the latest online self-directed learning platform for employees. Many of these tools are exciting – slick, attractive, easy to use, and highly adaptable for individuals. They have upbeat demo videos that make you want to be part of that world! The problem, however, is that the genuine and insidious barriers to learning in organisations aren’t addressed by them, so they are unlikely to be able to realise anything close to their promise. The biggest of these barriers is likely to be leadership culture – how leaders typically behave – and the impact that has on employees’ motivation and discretionary effort.

The Institute for Leadership and Management (ILM) produced a manifesto in 2017 which contains some pretty damning evidence as to why leaders are failing to engage people fully with their organisation. Members were asked: ‘How do leaders in your organisation make you feel?’ It found that 38% of responders reported that they felt ‘Good at my job’; 34% were made to feel valuable; and 20% felt inspired by their leaders. Only 15% were left feeling either empowered or excited about work.

To address this situation, we must start at the top of organisations. This is where we know culture flows from. Yet in most organisations, the leadership behaviour of Boards remains largely unexamined. Save for the misleading occasional self-assessment, we must address this major threat to competitive advantage through awareness-raising among Boards and Executive teams of both the consequences of their behaviour, and provide feedback to them from others so that they can learn and adapt this behaviour.

So that’s the bad news – there is much work to do to help ensure that our most senior leaders focus their attention and behaviour effectively. However, there is lots of good news. Fundamentally, to be a leader who genuinely engages hearts, minds and brains in learning and innovation for the benefit of both the organisation and its employees comes down to simple, common sense behaviours. An acronym to retain here is MAMAS. Keep asking yourself – am I providing my people with a real sense of Meaning in what they do? Do I help them see how their work contributes to the bigger vision? Do I keep them informed when things change? Do I give them enough Autonomy? Could I give them more? Have I taken the time to get to know them well enough that I know what autonomy they’d most want? When I increase autonomy, do I ensure that I coach, mentor and encourage them such that they feel confident, have a sense of Mastery of the task at hand? Do I show Appreciation for their efforts, on an ongoing basis and especially when things are particularly tough? And do I create a culture within my teams that means we each provide Social Support? When things are tough, can my people discharge their negative emotion, fears, and stress in a safe space, and ask for help?

That’s how we create genuine learning cultures, and it doesn’t need a silicon-valley genius to design.

Juliette Alban-Metcalfe is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist and CEO of Real World Group