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Learning to Learn – New Ways of Working

An upshot of the Covid shakeup is learning new skills working in a team in an uncertain environment where knowledge is a moving target. It has become a competitive imperative in most industries. Continuous improvement and staying competitive cannot happen by chance and without learning. However, most companies face a learning dilemma today: the more educated smart members of a team are many assume them to be the best at learning, in fact, they finding it the hardest to learn. They are the less likely to learn how to share knowledge freely, learn from one another, shift workloads flexibly to break up unexpected bottlenecks, help one another to complete jobs, meet deadlines, share resources – it’s called ‘Teaming’, the new revolutionised way of teamwork for today’s business environment.

Reason – The reason; they misunderstand what learning is and how to bring it about. As a result, they tend to make two mistakes in their efforts to become a willing to learn team member. First, learning is defined too narrowly as mere “problem solving”, so they focus on identifying and correcting errors in the external environment. Solving problems is important. However, if learning is to persist, managers and team members must learn to look inward, which they often do not do, mistake number two. They need to reflect critically on their own behaviour, identify the ways they often inadvertently contribute to the team’s problems, and then change how they act. In particular, they must learn how the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right, a result of personality style differences.

Learning – Understanding how adults learn is a perhaps a good point of departure. Learning is a process when experience leads to a change of something in a person that is characterised by different behaviours, resulting in a benefit and advantage to the person. It’s a case of action and reflection. Smart people are usually enthusiastic about continuous improvement – and often the biggest obstacle to its success. Rather, the key factor is the way they reason about their behaviour and that of others. Reasoning is based on what people believe and people’s values dictate what they believe, consciously or unconsciously.

Values – Beliefs and Values are cognitive constructs. Values and needs drive human motivation. However, actions often contradict that what people say they believe in. This creates an internal dissonance and conflict between actions and values. Four specific beliefs, usually unconscious, often influence the way some managers behave; 1) To remain in (unilateral) control; 2) To maximise “winning” & minimise “losing”; 3) To suppress & ignore negative feelings; and 4) To be as “rational” as possible. The purpose of all these beliefs is self-serving, to avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent. Consequently, a defensive perception and mind-set emerge, usually without realising it.

Defensive Reasoning – Defensive reasoning encourages individuals to keep private the premises, inferences, conclusions and intentions that shape their behaviour to avoid exposing and testing them in a truly independent, objective fashion. Because the attributions that go into defensive reasoning are never really tested, it is a closed loop, remarkably impervious to opposing or conflicting points of views. The inevitable reaction to the observation that somebody is reasoning defensively is yet more defensive reasoning. Needles to say, such modus operandi short-circuits and blocks learning. Until team leaders and managers become aware of how they reason defensively, through feedback, and the counterproductive consequences that result, there will be little real progress, if at all.

Productive Reasoning – To question someone else’s reasoning is not a sign of mistrust but a valuable opportunity for learning. Reasoning is influenced by your point of reference and intention. Your point of reference will create your boundaries and as a result your limitations, a self-imposed entrapment. If your point of reference is, for example, that of a ‘manager’ talking to a ‘subordinate’ vs. a team mate talking to a team mate; the affects and results will be vastly different. Put another way, the way you talk to your father/mother is very different to the way you talk to your best mate, because of your different points of reference. Communication – The essence of communication is intention. The solution is to clarify your intention for yourself first and then act accordingly. The purpose of productive reasoning is to understand first before being understood. Asking questions for which you have no answers will force you to really listen with an intention to understand. Productive reasoning builds trust. That is, being reliable, open, straightforward and accepting of the other person and their point of view, despite the possibility of disagreeing with it. Productive reasoning is laying the groundwork for continuous learning and improvement that is truly continuous. It’s a case of practicing the new skill of learning how to learn to team and teaming to learn.

Sources: Johan Cronje Specialist Team Coach Intégro Learning SA. Chris Argyris, Harvard Graduate School of Business and Education;