Fear, Change, and Life-Long Learning
Can we ever stop learning? Most people would agree that we are constantly learning new things about ourselves, our environment, other people, as well as what works and what doesn’t.
But how many times have you attended a mandatory training session – and been bored to tears?
Or how many times have you been “forced” to learn a new method to complete a task that required you to “forget” everything that you used to do?
In the 25+ years that I have been a trainer, facilitator, and keynote speaker, I have often been surprised that many of the participants really didn’t want to be there. Some displayed this through a lack of interaction. Others simply looked down and were absorbed with their smart phones. Many adopted a “wait and see” attitude as to the value of the information. Still others were blatantly hostile and combative to any new ideas that were presented.
Sadly, a not large enough percentage approached the training as something enjoyable, informative, and applicable to their daily tasks, duties, and responsibilities.
Of course, it is and always has been my duty and responsibility to engage the audience by answering the fundamental question that underscores all learning: “WIIFM (or what’s in it for me)?”
Fortunately, I’ve been pretty successful in giving the audience something that they could actually use. I admit that (thankfully) not all people have been resistant to learning something new.
But I can’t help but wonder what past experiences jaded many attendees to fully embrace new ideas in the form of life-long learning?
In corporations, a large percentage of training is required to meet regulatory compliance (e.g., sexual harssment, ethics, EEO, etc.). However, much of the other corporate-sponsored training often focuses on building key employee competencies to successfully compete in their markets.
Such “competency-based performance models” are the new rage in business. “Competencies” indicate a high level of mastery or expertise in key areas of knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors which are then used to create a competitive advantage for the company. In other words, it’s the stuff that you’re really good at.
But, identifying those competencies is a lot easier said than done.
Whether or not the competencies identified by seniors leaders are actually the “real” core competencies for the company, the corresponding training always focuses on changing the tools, methods, and even reporting relationships that employees use to do their jobs.
How Fear Affects the Passion to Learn
Changing the way that you work is based on a changing organizational foundation. And that’s scary for most workers.
Perhaps most frightening is “un-learning” things that have led to success in the past. Can we be just as good at the new way of doing something as we were in doing it the old way?
Another challenge occurs when managers don’t reinfoce the training back in the workplace – particularly if the company follows a “new is always better” approach. This occurs when company leaders are constantly changing the way that things are done…but without a sound explanation for employees as to why.
Is it any wonder that employees are reluctant to put forth the effort to learn something new when the past has proven that it will just be replaced with something even newer a few months down the road?
Adults are not children and they have very different learning needs than children:
- Adult learners already have insights, opinions, and assumptions about what works and what doesn’t – so we are less likely to accept new approaches at face value.
- Adult learners are often subject matter experts in our fields – so we want our opinions to be heard and shared.
- Finally, adult learners are busy – so if we are going to spend time in training (and not on something else), we want to make sure that we will be able to actually use these insights back on the job.
Change and the Learning Organization
We live in an age of constant, unrelenting change. In the book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge encouraged companies to embrace life-long learning across all functional and hierarchical levels. In a world that is constantly changing, the only way to adapt is by being open to learning new ways to approach both new and old problems.
Notice that “learning” corresponds with “change.” Given the high degree of change resistance in many organizations, it is not surprising that these fears will be most noticeable in employee reactions to training and development.
- Ego plays an important role in the unwillingness to abandon old beliefs and replace them with something which is currently unknown.
- Economic realities threaten our feelings of security when we aren’t initially “good” at something new because we fear that we are now “replaceable” in the organization.
- In today’s time-strapped workplace, there is often an expedited learning curve that just isn’t conducive to learning and then implementing higher level, complex ideas. It’s just easier to continue to do things the old way.
- Information overload is a genuine problem affecting worker productivity and organizational performance. Exhaustion and fatigue coupled with misguided attempts to multitask cause us to shut down to new ideas. There is simply too much to learn and do. We are overwhelmed.
Learning inherently questions the status quo in order to create something that is more efficient, effective, and powerful. This is a double-edged sword for many senior organizational leaders. An informed workforce is like the child who isn’t afraid to say that the emperor isn’t actually wearing any new clothes: employees can and will challenge organizational leaders and the decisions that they make.
Moving toward a commitment to life-long learning is therefore a major paradigm shift for both the organization as a whole and the individual workers within it. But fearing new ideas and stubbornly refusing to at least try them is a prescription for failure in a constantly changing world.
Puleo’s Pointers: Don’t extinguish the flame
As humans, we are hardwired to want to understand and know more about ourselves and our environments. Many times we will fail in our first attempts to try something new – but that shouldn’t prevent us from continuing to move forward. This is perhaps the greatest advice from Senge’s Fifth Discipline: failure is nothing more than an opportunity to learn.
Once the fire for learning has been lit, we humans tend to continue to stoke the flames:
“Knowledge always desires increase; it is like fire, which must first be kindled by some external agent, but which will afterwards propagate itself.” (Samuel Johnson)
Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning company focused on techniques to eliminate the 5 workplace stressors that create and sustain burnout: Job Change, Organizational Change, Work-Life Imbalance, Poor Leadership and Management, and Ineffective Human Resources. An entrepreneur for over 25 years, author, blogger, career coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action,” watch her TEDx Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI. To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com.