4 Ways to Create a Learning Culture on Your Team

Technology is disrupting every industry and area of life, especially how we work. The digital revolution has placed a premium on intellectual curiosity and learnability, the desire and ability to quickly grow and adapt one’s skill set to remain employable. What you know is less relevant than what you may learn.

“The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization’s learning culture,” says Josh Bersin, principle and found of Bersin by Deloitte in Oakland, California, citing findings from a 2010 Bersin & Associates research report, High-Impact Learning Culture: The 40 Best Practices for Creating and Empowered Enterprise.

Like most things, creating a learning culture is easier said than done. Fortunately, it can be taught.

True learning cultures, defined by Corporate Executive Board (CEB) as “a culture that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization,” are still the exception rather than the norm. According to CEB research. And only 20 percent of employees show effective learning behaviors.

On the plus side, workers today have much more control over their own development. That’s largely due to the ubiquity of online learning courses, webinars and social networks. Given a choice, people generally prefer to learn online at their own pace.

Learning is taking place, but are employees learning what they need to? Does the organization support their efforts with a learning culture?

Here are four science-based recommendations to help create a learning culture on your team or in your organization.

Reward continuous learning. A formal reward system entices the changes you desire, and even then there is no guarantee unless the rewards are effective. It is more than simply praising and promoting efforts to learn; it’s about creating a climate that nurtures critical thinking, where challenging authority and speaking up is encouraged, even if it means creating discord. This is particularly important to foster innovation.

Giving meaningful and constructive feedback. The focus on “strengths” and feel-good approaches to management tends to minimize the value of negative feedback. It is hard to improve on anything when you are unaware of your limitations. Positive reinforcement is motivating, but we all have blind spots. Negative feedback provided in a constructive and delicate way—it is a true art—can also help team members to improve.

Lead by example. What you, as a leader, actually do is a critical driver of employee learning. As illustrated by the leadership value chain model, leaders’ behaviors—particularly what they routinely do—have a strong influence on the behavior and performance of their teams. Nurturing your team’s curiosity and learning, then means practicing what you preach. Start by displaying some learning and unlocking your own curiosity. Learn a new skill or enhance an existing one. Read a book and share what you learned.

Hire curious people. It’s far easier to prevent and predict than to fix and change. When selection works, there’s less need for training and development. Hiring people that are naturally curious you won’t have to worry so much about their willingness to learn. But how do you identify an individual’s propensity to learn and be curious? There is well-established science to predicting a person’s probability of displaying such traits (for example, openness to new experience, tolerance for ambiguity, critical thinking, and inquisitiveness). The screening and hiring process can include questions and other methods to uncover these desirable traits.

Reinforcing positive learning behaviors, giving constructive and critical feedback, showcasing your own curiosity, and hiring people with high learnability are all likely to create a stronger learning culture within your team and organization.

Great Coaches Ask, Listen, and Empathize

Historically, leaders achieved their position by virtue of experience on the job and in-depth knowledge. They were expected to have answers and to readily provide them when employees were unsure about what to do or how to do it. The leader was the person who knew the most, and that was the basis of their authority.

Leaders today still have to understand their business thoroughly, but it’s unrealistic and ill-advised to expect them to have all the answers. Organizations are simply too complex for leaders to govern on that basis. One way for leaders to adjust to this shift is to adopt a new role: that of coach. By using coaching methods and techniques in the right situations, leaders can still be effective without knowing all the answers and without telling employees what to do.

Coaching is about connecting with people, inspiring them to do their best, and helping them to grow. It’s also about challenging people to come up with the answers they require on their own. Coaching is far from an exact science, and all leaders have to develop their own style, but we can break down the process into practices that any manager will need to explore and understand. Here are the three most important:

Ask

Coaching begins by creating space to be filled by the employee, and typically you start this process by asking an open-ended question. After some initial small talk with my clients and students, I usually signal the beginning of our coaching conversation by asking, “So, where would you like to start?” The key is to establish receptivity to whatever the other person needs to discuss, and to avoid presumptions that unnecessarily limit the conversation. As a manager you may well want to set some limits to the conversation (“I’m not prepared to talk about the budget today.”) or at least ensure that the agenda reflects your needs (“I’d like to discuss last week’s meeting, in addition to what’s on your list.”), but it’s important to do only as much of this as necessary and to leave room for your employee to raise concerns and issues that are important to them. It’s all too easy for leaders to inadvertantly send signals that prevent employees from raising issues, so make it clear that their agenda matters.

In his book Helping, former MIT professor Edgar Schein identifies different modes of inquiry that we employ when we’re offering help, and they map particularly well to coaching conversations. The initial process of information gathering I described above is what Schein calls “pure inquiry.” The next step is “diagnostic inquiry,” which consists of focusing the other person’s attention on specific aspects of their story, such as feelings and reactions, underlying causes or motives, or actions taken or contemplated. (“You seem frustrated with Chris. How’s that relationship going?” or “It sounds like there’s been some tension on your team. What do you think is happening?” or “That’s an ambitious goal for that project. How are you planning to get there?”)

The next step in the process is what Schein somewhat confusingly calls “confrontational inquiry”. He doesn’t mean that we literally confront the person, but, rather, that we challenge aspects of their story by introducing new ideas and hypotheses, substituting our understanding of the situation for the other person’s. (“You’ve been talking about Chris’s shortcomings. How might you be contributing to the problem?” or “I understand that your team’s been under a lot of stress. How has turnover affected their ability to collaborate?” or “That’s an exciting plan, but it has a lot of moving parts. What happens if you’re behind schedule?”)

In coaching conversations it’s crucial to spend as much time as needed in the initial stages and resist the urge to jump ahead, where the process shifts from asking open-ended questions to using your authority as a leader to spotlight certain issues. The more time you can spend in pure inquiry, the more likely the conversation will challenge your employee to come up with their own creative solutions, surfacing the unique knowledge that they’ve gained from their proximity to the problem.

Listen

It’s important to understand the difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is a cognitive process that happens internally — we absorb sound, interpret it, and understand it. But listening is a whole-body process that happens between two people that makes the other person truly feel heard.

Listening in a coaching context requires significant eye contact, not to the point of awkwardness, but more than you typically devote in a casual conversation. This ensures that you capture as much data about the other person as possible — facial expressions, gestures, tics — and conveys a strong sense of interest and engagement.

Effective listening also requires our focused attention. Coaching is fundamentally incompatible with multitasking, because while you may be able to hear what another person is saying while working on something else, it’s impossible to listen in a way that makes the other person feel heard. It’s critical to eliminate distractions. Turn off your phone, close your laptop, and find a dedicated space where you won’t be interrupted.

Coaching conversations can take place over the phone, of course, and in that medium it’s even more important to refrain from multitasking so that in the absence of visual data, you can pick up on subtle cues in someone’s speech.

In my experience taking brief, sporadic notes in a coaching conversation helps me to stay focused and lessens the burden of maintaining information in my working memory (which holds just five to seven items for most people.) But note-taking itself can become a distraction, causing you to worry more about accurately capturing the other person’s comments than about truly listening. Coaching conversations aren’t depositions, so don’t play stenographer. If you feel the need to take notes, try writing one word or phrase at a time, just enough to jog your memory later.

Empathize

Empathy is the ability not only to comprehend another person’s point of view, but also to vicariously experience their emotions. Without empathy other people remain alien and opaque to us. When present it establishes the interpersonal connection that makes coaching possible.

A key to the importance of empathy can be found in the work of Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston whose work focuses on the topics of vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Empathy, Brown notes, is “the antidote to shame.” When employees need your help they are likely experiencing some form of shame, even if it’s just mild embarrassment — and the more serious the problem, the deeper the shame. Feeling and expressing empathy is critical to helping the other person defuse their embarrassment and begin thinking creatively about solutions.

But note that our habitual expressions of empathy can sometimes be counterproductive. Michael Sahota, a coach in Toronto who works with groups of software developers and product managers, explains some of the traps we fall into when trying to express empathy: We compare our issues to theirs (“My problem’s bigger.”), try to be overly positive (“Look on the bright side.”), or leap to problem-solving while ignoring what they’re feeling in the moment.

Finally, be aware that expressing empathy need not prevent you from holding people to high standards. You may fear that empathizing is equivalent to excusing poor performance but this is a false dichotomy. Empathizing with the difficulties your employees face is an important step in the process of helping them build resilience and learn from setbacks. After you’ve acknowledged an employee’s struggles and feelings, they’re more likely to respond to your efforts to motivate improved performance.

When you coach as a leader you don’t need to be the expert. You don’t need to be the smartest or most experienced person in the room. And you don’t need to have all the solutions. But you do need to be able to connect with people, to inspire them to do their best, and to help them search inside and discover their own answers.

What is 5G?

5G is the 5th Generation of cellular wireless technology.

The first generation of mobile networks, introduced in 1979, used analog radio technology and only allowed voice calls. The second generation switched to digital radio and provided data transport for text and emails. Each successive generation has brought greater transmission speed, making Internet access and video streaming possible.

The latest generation will bring the greatest advance to date in network speed, enabling near-realtime data availability. As with past upgrades, however, this next generation will require new phones, devices and communication infrastructure.

Network speeds from 1-6G
5G represents the biggest boosts in speed since the introduction of wireless networking in 1979.

How is 5G Different?

Two words explain the difference between our current wireless networks and 5G: speed and latency. 5G—if you believe the hype—is expected to be up to a hundred times faster. (A two-hour movie could be downloaded in less than four seconds.) That speed will reduce, and possibly eliminate, the delay—the latency—between instructing a computer to perform a command and its execution. 

In the U.S., 5G will use a band of the radio spectrum that has never before been used for cellular data networks: high-frequency radio waves the length of millimeters rather than centimeters. This wide open “road” will accommodate more data and reduce delays in data transfer (latency) even in peak use hours. 4G towers were designed to support approximately 6,500 devices per square mile, whereas 5G can support upwards of 1 million devices in the same area.

How can 5G Benefit Your City/County/State?

The potential upside to greater capacity and network speed is huge. Surges in cellular network use during emergency events are less likely to slow or prevent vital communications between citizens and first responders. 5G will be the underlying infrastructure to help usher in fully autonomous vehicles, intelligent public safety cameras and connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices used throughout city infrastructure. Jurisdictions with 5G networks are likely to attract tech-savvy residents and businesses that leverage those connections for new digital business models and reach new customers.

The Leader as Coach

Historically, managers came up through the ranks and knew what needed to be done, taught others how to do it, and managed their performance. It was command and control.

Today, change and disruption are constant, and what worked in the past does not predict success for the future. Modern managers don’t have all the answers, and this new reality changes how managers and leaders interact with their teams. Prescriptive instruction is replaced by guidance and support. Employees learn to adapt to a constantly changing environment in ways that release fresh energy, innovation, and commitment.

The role of manager is becoming that of a coach.

This is a fundamental shift as more organizations invest in training leaders as coaches. This coaching in ongoing and executed by managers inside the organization rather than consultants; it creates a true learning organization, and it helps define the culture and advance the mission. It’s work that all managers should engage in with all their people all the time, in ways that help define the organization’s culture and advance its mission. An effective manager-as-coach asks questions instead of providing answers, supports employees instead of judging them, and facilitates their development instead of dictating what has to be done.

Skilled coaching involves unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance. Coaching at its best imparts knowledge and helps others discover it themselves.

Aspiration and practice are most often not in alignment. Let’s focus first on  focus first on how to develop coaching as an individual managerial capacity, and then on how to make it an organizational one.

You Need Help

Coaching feels to touchy feely for some leaders. They may feel uncomfortable outside the familiar authority.