“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
– William Arthur Ward
When it comes to effectively leading teams and organizations in today’s fast-paced, 24/7 global economy, it’s becoming more and more evident that the days of command-and-control leadership are well behind us. That – to paraphrase the quote above – organizations need leaders who don’t just explain or demonstrate the relevance of their vision to those they lead. Rather, what organizations require are leaders who can inspire employees to commit themselves wholeheartedly to making this vision a reality.
It’s a recurring theme found in some of the talks I’ve given this year, going from my keynote speech given at a leadership conference in Chicago last month to my next presentation in Utah in September: that as leaders, we need to do more than simply paint grand visions of the future; we also have to provide an environment where our employees can see the opportunity to grow, evolve, and help build the kind of future that they want to be a part of.
As I prepare for my talk next month on how leaders can help their organizations to shift from relying solely on training programs to promoting a continuous learning environment, I’d like to share the following 3 measures to provide some insights on how you can do the same in your organization.
1. Encourage your employees to challenge their assumptions
One of the first things we have to do to promote continuous learning in our organization is to encourage our employees to challenge their assumptions of their capabilities as well as of what’s possible. To understand the importance of this step to creating a continuous learning environment, we need to first understand how our brain performs tasks.
When our brain performs tasks or makes decisions, it not only taps into the brain’s limited energy reserves, but in the process of using that energy, it creates waste by-products like beta-amyloid and other metabolites, which can reduce our brain’s ability to concentrate and efficiently perform tasks.
An easy way to think of this is how when we do exercise, we use up the energy stored in our muscles to move. As we deplete the energy reserves and start building up metabolites, we begin to experience fatigue and it becomes harder for us to do the same movements we were doing before with ease.
Given how we have a limited daily reserve of energy at our disposal, our brain tends to protect us from using it too much by employing short-cuts in the form of habits, where we perform these tasks with minimal thought or effort. Consequently, we expend less energy to perform these very tasks.
In terms of the training we provide to our employees, what we see happening is that the new insights and information our employees receive from these workshops are transformed into new habits, so that they end up applying these new approaches with little thought or reflection around the work itself.
Invariably, this is what leads to those moments many of us have encountered at one point or another where when we ask why something is being done a certain way, the answer we’re given is that ‘this is just the way things are done around here’.
As such, if we are to ensure our organization remains adaptive to external changes to sustain our competitive edge – as well as to promote our ability to innovate – we need to ensure that our employees are challenging their assumptions of what’s possible. That they are given dedicated time to reflect and review why things are being done a certain way and how we might make improvements going forward.
While we may have limited energy reserves in our brain, there can be little doubt that this measure is a valuable way for us to use it.
2. Provide an environment where employees feel safe to fail
Of course, in order to encourage our employees to challenge their assumptions, we also have to make sure that we’re demonstrating to our employees our commitment to addressing those moments where things don’t turn out as planned.
In other words, we have to consistently demonstrate to our employees that in pushing the boundaries to learn and explore, we know that things won’t always work out, but that this is part of the learning process.
Again, the importance of this can best be appreciated when we consider how our brain operates. One of the things that we’re all hard-wired to do is to pay more attention to the things we perceive as being negative. As a protective measure, this neurological mechanism makes a lot of sense in how it helps to keep us out of harm’s way.
Unfortunately, it’s this same neurological mechanism that can make our employees not only avoid failure, but it can actually increase their stress levels because our brain is looking out to avoid any situation where we might fail. And naturally, when we’re focused more on avoiding failure, it’s harder for us to be more open to learning.
This is why training sessions are so effective in helping employees to learn new skills and insights – your employees know going in that they’re not expected to have the answers already, which means that it’s okay if they get things wrong or fail to succeed at some of the activities carried out during the training period.
It’s this kind of environment that we need to ensure we’re creating in our organization as well so our employees will be able to shift their focus away from avoiding failure to learning why certain approaches are inefficient and how we might do things better going forward.
Also, as is the case with training workshops, we also need to ensure that we’re providing a context for our employees in terms of how not all failures are created equal, in that while some can lead to devastating consequences for the organization, there are many others that – while painful and difficult to overcome – can nonetheless help us to improve how we operate in order to do better going forward.
3. Promote learning as a shared experience
After discussing the previous two measures, one thing that becomes clear is that our ability to learn and grow is very much dependent on the relationships and interactions we have with those around us. And this leads us to the last measure we need to employ to promote continuous learning in our organization, which is that we need to encourage our employees to view learning as a shared experience.
On the surface, this last point makes a lot sense in terms of expanding the learning experience beyond the training/workshop settings and into the everyday workplace environment. But the more significant benefit to be gained from this last measure is that it will ensure that your employees not only reflect on what they’ve learned, but on why these new insights and ideas matter.
Of why this learning experience is important, not only in terms of your organization’s future growth and agility, but to their ability to become stronger and more valued contributors to your organization’s shared purpose.
This measure will also help us to remind our employees that no one person in our organization – including those in leadership positions – has all the answers, and that the growth and success of our organization is dependent on our ability to build on the collective experiences of everyone in our organization.
By sharing what we’ve learned, we can ensure that these new insights help us to become more adaptive to today’s faster-paced, 24/7 world, as well as creating conditions for us to keep improving how we operate as our employees will have a greater understanding of what we need to do going forward.
This last measure also ties into one of the core psychological needs we all have; that of relatedness, where we feel a connection, a bond and a sense of commonality with those around us. By fostering an environment where our employees share what they’ve learned, we can use these moments to strengthen the sense of community and belonging that will help our employees to continue to look for ways for us to do better than we do today.
It’s become a common-place understanding that we now operate in a global economy that requires knowledge-workers, but what’s less often discussed is how we especially need knowledgeable contributors to the shared purpose that defines why we do what we do.
That’s why I started this piece with that quote from William Arthur Ward because it reminds us that it’s no longer enough to simply inform our employees of what we need them to do and to provide them with periodic training sessions to build on their existing knowledge base.
Instead, we have to also make sure that we’re creating this environment where they are inspired to contribute their full selves to our shared purpose because they know they have the opportunity to become a better version of themselves in the process.
In so doing, we will not only be able to tap into the native talents, creativity, and insights of those we lead, but we can create that continuous learning environment where we can inspire our employees to believe in the vision that defines our organization because they know they will acquire the skills and experiences to help make it a reality.