Recent data is clear: Organizations gain a competitive advantage when they invest in continuous learning. Building people’s capacity, boosting their engagement, and listening to their insights not only helps retain these vital human resources but is also more effective than continuously attempting to buy talent and knowledge.
By investing in building, sustaining, and enhancing a culture of learning and innovation, a company positions itself to thrive, not just survive. It’s challenging, but building three key mindsets—empathy, expectations, and ownership—is the first step.
Display empathy to establish trust
First, reframe your view of your employees as learners and that any effort to engage or motivate them requires supporting the learning of a single person. Every learner is different—not just in broad terms such as gender, age, and race—but neurologically. Every person’s brain works in its own unique way. Sure, there are commonalities, but there are also myriad nuances. In academia, this uniqueness is framed as learner variability.
Every brain is as unique as a fingerprint, and those brains change their learning activity based on experience, content, and context. So when leading others, it’s helpful to understand learning not based on how you learn but from other people’s perspectives. One size fits all will never work, especially if you want to design learning opportunities that are inclusive and impactful.
If to have a learning culture, we must honor the variability of each employee, how do we go about providing such flexible, supportive learning opportunities? Empathy plays a key role. Defined as the understanding and sensitivity to the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others, we need empathy to understand our learners, their goals, their needs, their challenges, and how they will be affected by the context in which they hope to learn. Here are two ways to gain an understanding of how your learners are experiencing your culture.
Go and See: To build an understanding of how learning works, and when it doesn’t, go where it takes place. What’s happening? What’s missing? Observe at different times, during other activities, and with diverse learners.
- What’s the emotional climate, the vibe?
- What’s the pace at which information is presenting itself? Is it slow, frenetic, or somewhere in between?
- Who’s doing the work, what are they doing, and what results are they getting?
Ask and Listen: Ask others what they’re seeing and hearing regarding how we learn at this company.
- Enlist a diverse group of people and empower them to communicate their needs, ideas, and challenges when encountering different learning environments.
- These user experts can tell you precisely what it’s like to be them in specific contexts.
- Locate extreme users, people with the most significant degrees of need related to your problem, which will allow you to design with sufficient flexibility and support needed to reach all your people.
Set high expectations and train employees to meet them
The next key element in building a learning culture is to believe—and expect—that everyone can learn and improve. Setting clear, high expectations is essential, but they’re also a challenge because they require us to examine and address our beliefs and biases about people.
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the power of expectations. When leaders believe people can learn, they are more likely to provide the necessary conditions (feedback, scaffolds, and so on) to support that learning. Conversely, if we don’t believe someone can learn based on their background, role, previous performance, or disability, we won’t include the necessary support in the design of the instruction.
Doubt that everyone can learn? More pessimistic about other people’s potential than your own? According to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, this attitude represents a fixed mindset, that is, a belief that ability, including the ability to learn, is largely static.
How does a fixed belief in one’s ability show up? In a variety of behaviors and thoughts, including:
- Avoiding challenge. Why do that if I’m never going to be good at it?
- Withholding opportunity. They’ll never be able to do this, so why should I let them try?
- Low effort. Success comes from innate talent, not hard work.
- Envy of others’ success. They didn’t earn that; they’re just born lucky.
This fixed mindset places success and failure mainly outside the control of both the learner and the teacher. In a way, it protects us from the blame for failure if we believe we’re just not made for some things. However, that protection comes at the cost of agency and opportunity. We deny ourselves and others the chance to grow and own our improvement. Instead, Dweck urges us to adopt a growth mindset that sees ability as something plastic or variable and able to improve.
That’s where high expectations come in. Expectations must come with the understanding that change takes time, effort, intention, and experimentation. Changing behaviors, which is what learning does, is not something we should expect instantaneously; learning is growth, and growth takes significant time, effort, intention, monitoring, and reinforcement.
That investment may be more than some are used to when it comes to leading. But time will tell (pun intended) is just that—an investment and one that will yield real results. If we expect quick fixes and cheap solutions—we might as well not even try. To paraphrase a passage from the Talmud, the long road is the shortest because the short roads lead nowhere.
Embed a sense of ownership to help employees change
With our empathy informing our high expectations, we come to what I have personally found to be both the most challenging and rewarding of the three mindsets: ownership. You know your people, and you have high expectations for them. Now, it’s your job to ensure they meet them as barriers to learning exist in environments, not people.
When learners fail to meet our expectations, we have to figure out what’s not working for them rather than in them. It doesn’t help the learner to tell ourselves that they just didn’t get it. Instead, when we take ownership of the challenges our learners encounter, we are communicating our commitment to their success. These barriers show up in three main areas:
- Why: Barriers that impede learners from engaging in, sustaining, and ultimately taking ownership of their learning and improvement
- What: Barriers to perceiving, processing, comprehending, and connecting new information to prior understanding and future applications.
- How: Barriers to the communication and strategic application of learning to authentic practice
When we address barriers to learning, either by removing them or empowering our people to overcome them, we communicate our stake in the learning, which engages, motivates, and empowers them to own their learning process. When we refuse to make excuses, point fingers or use ambiguous word salads to avoid taking responsibility, we are modeling ownership to our learners, peers, and other leaders.
Some folks may not buy the notion that barriers don’t exist in people. That’s an abdication of ownership over learner improvement, and it’s a missed opportunity to better support your people. Further, when the results suffer, guess whose budget is likely to suffer? If you’re going to be held accountable for the results, taking ownership of potential learning barriers provides you the agency to do something about them.
Taking on such ownership can be somewhat intimidating, but it’s the only way to develop and sustain an authentic learning culture. Acknowledging barriers in the learning environment asks us to understand that learning is something people do rather than something done to them. Supporting them in this endeavor means not forcing learning but rather becoming allies with learners. By respecting them as individuals in their learning and honoring and empowering their ability to make decisions for themselves.
People are not problems to be solved; they’re partners to be valued and supported. Empathy, expectations, and ownership are the foundations upon which you can build, sustain, and enhance that partnership, fueling our collective efforts to learn, innovate, and excel.
James McKenna serves as the assistant director of Professional Learning and Leadership Development at the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence and is the founder of McKenna Learning, a learning and development consultancy. He is the author of Upskill, Reskill, Thrive.