As a leader you face growing pressure to continually develop your team, with many of today’s skills predicted to be relevant only for the next five years. With such a rapid pace of change, this timeframe is only likely to be reduced, requiring more on-the-job learning to develop vital new skills to enhance personal and organisational performance. Furthermore, Millennial and Gen Zworkers are increasingly making their career decisions on the opportunity to learn and progress within an organisation. In response, leaders have embraced the concept of a learning culture as a way to meet these challenges — yet, according to one study, only 10% of organisations have created a true learning culture, while only 20% of employees demonstrate learning behaviours.
So, what’s the best way to address this imbalance? Let’s start by defining a learning culture. A learning culture is a set of organisational values, processes and practices that encourage team members and the organisation as a whole to increase knowledge, competence and performance. Furthermore, by expressing learning in a cultural context, it also suggests — like any value or belief that defines an organisational culture — that learning informs the actions and decisions in the organisation. For example, does your culture encourage dissenting voices in meetings to open up different perspectives before important decisions are made?
The positive impact of fostering a learning culture in your team is undeniable, with research by Bersinsuggesting that organisations with learning cultures are 30% more likely to be market leaders, while over 70%of workers state that they will stay with an employer for more than five years if learning is prioritised. Studiesalso show that learning is an effective way to combat stress, with employees benefitting from the psychological resources that develop through the practice of learning.
Even with such compelling evidence, however, there are few organisations supporting this practice. So what more can we, as leaders, be doing?
Here are five team leadership behaviours that can help.
1. Create the right conditions
When it comes to learning, most employees can be conflicted by two basic human needs — the desire to learn and grow and the need to be accepted for who they are. This can make the learning process difficult for workers, who are often so busy trying to demonstrate their ability that they forget to learn, perceiving questions as a sign of weakness.
To combat this, leaders need to develop vulnerability-based trust by creating an environment in which people feel safe to take interpersonal risks without fear of retribution. This includes making them feel comfortable enough to ask questions rather than feeling pressured to have all the answers.
According to organisational psychologist Amy Edmondson,there are a number of ways that leaders can create what she calls “psychological safety”, including modelling curiosity and framing tasks as learning problems. For example, as a leader, asking for feedback on how you delivered your message will better engage the team, highlighting possible blind spots in communication skills, and most importantly modelling fallibility, which increases trust in you as a leader.
2. Coach for different perspectives
A valuable way for people to learn is through exposure to different perspectives. As a leader, you should take more time to think about the diversity of talent that you assemble to collaborate on projects: that is, identifying the diversity in ethnic, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, along with differing work experiences, thinking styles, skills and interests that are relevant to the task. Also, when collaborating, make sure to take the time to effectively access these different perspectives to enrich the learning process.
The challenge for leaders when encouraging people to share their views is being aware of the different communication preferences that will be present in more diverse teams. For example, in some cultures, people prefer a more indirect style of communication than the direct-feedback approach that is valued in many western cultures. Unless you get to know your team members’ communication preferences, you may find that some of them feel intimidated by the team’s overall communication style, hindering the collaboration and learning efforts.
3. Act as a positive role model
For a learning culture to flourish, leaders need to lead by example. Your behaviour has a powerful influence on your team’s behaviour and performance, so it is your responsibility to positively impact people’s desire to learn. This can mean, for instance, that when you come across something you don’t know, you are honest about it; and, crucially, that you don’t use information as a source of power over others. An inspiring leader gathers and distributes knowledge, understanding where it will be of most value in the organisation.
Furthermore, strong leaders demonstrate a growth mindset, such as being open to learning from what didn’twork as well as celebrating what did. In doing so, you must also make sure to openly reflect on opportunities for growth, and not act defensive when discussing past decisions.
To be successful, leaders need to bring self-awareness with an accurate assessment of their skills and an understanding of how they might be triggered in the learning process, such as feeling like you need to have all the answers, as well as the role leaders play in being empathetic towards team members who may need support and encouragement to explore other team members’ perspectives.
4. Champion self-directed learning
As a leader, you can encourage your team to connect with their strengths and interests to further motivate learning. Not surprisingly, studieshave shown that when people link characteristics of their work to their individual strengths and interests, motivation and job performance increases. Furthermore, according to neuroscience research,information is retained for longer when learning is self-directed than when it is instructed.
At a practical level, leaders can embed learning goals into their employees’ development plans, making it an integral part of job performance. This approach is designed to encourage your team to take greater responsibility for their professional development, as well as learning through self-reflection. Research confirmsthat when people spend time each day thinking about what they did well and what they learnt from the day’s experiences, their job performance will improve.
5. Encourage peer-to-peer learning
We know from researchthat peer-to-peer learning is highly effective, so as a leader, you can facilitate this process by better connecting people throughout the organisation. With the growth in online learning platforms, it is important to remember the value of face-to-face learning opportunities. For exampleat Google, 80% of all training runs through an in-person, employee-to-employee network called Googler-to-Googler. It is not about training on the cheap; employees develop and grow by teaching others, and the people in your organisation learn from their teammates with first-hand knowledge and relevant skills.
Furthermore, leaders can create a culture in which relevant and timely peer-to-peer feedback is encouraged, recognising it is one of the most powerful forms of learning, when delivered in the right way. For example, if you give your employees specific feedback ‘in the moment’ rather than waiting for the next performance review, you’ll ensure that learning becomes part of the social fabric of the organisation — members of your team will learn through a network of informal workplace interactions and exposure to different perspectives.
In closing, learning should not feel like another task on an already lengthy to-do list. It is about team leaders helping to embed learning behaviours into day-to-day workplace practices; encouraging more informal learning opportunities in small doses, which can add up to major positive changes; and, above all, focusing on hiring people who are naturally curious. Encourage more critical thinking among your team, because looking to the future, what you know may become less important than which questions you are willing to ask.