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Leaders: Break Through Your Learning Blockers

Jesse Sostrin

Jesse Sostrin is a director at PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence. He is the author of The Manager’s Dilemma (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He writes and speaks at the intersection of individual and organizational success.

 

One of the most important leadership skills you can develop is the capacity to objectively diagnose your counterproductive preferences and tendencies — especially the ones that insulate you from the learning that helps you stay relevant.

Pay attention to the people you work with and you’ll quickly notice which ones are habitually prone to slow down their learning — or block it altogether. They’re the ones who go through the motions at meetings, failing to find relevant and interesting things to learn and contribute. They remain content with what they already know, avoiding reading or exploring new subjects. And they’re the ones who treat both the informal and formal learning opportunities they encounter as nothing more than a quick box to check.

Perhaps you identify one of these tendencies in yourself, or maybe you’ve been blocking your learning path in subtler ways. When you’re faced with a challenging situation, what’s your go-to approach? Do you default to what’s familiar in order to muster confidence and make quick progress, or do you stretch out, embrace the unknown, and take your time to explore what’s different and what’s possible? (To delve more deeply into your tendencies, take the quiz “Are You Increasing Your Learning Agility — Or Are You Missing Out?”)

If you are honest with yourself, you gain a higher perspective, one that allows you to observe your actions and see how they create real patterns (instead of the patterns you wish would exist). To make sure you aren’t hindering your own learning agility with a few bad habits, take an honest look at how these three common blockers may apply to you. Then you can apply the suggestions for pushing past them.

Looking for the Status Quo

This blocker is about the habit of connecting a new problem to an old solution. With a straightforward issue, this can be the most efficient way forward. However, with a complicated or novel situation, relying on past success becomes a block to learning agility. When you search for a shortcut to a known solution, you’re forced to focus on the commonalities while avoiding the differences that could reduce the validity of the easy approach.

Keep these tips in mind:

• When you’re in unfamiliar terrain, don’t take a head-down, just-get-it-done approach. That only reinforces your existing assumptions about the nature of the problem and solution.

• Instead, suspend judgment about the problem and possible solution and listen to the people around you. Ask lots of questions to expose all the information so you can better understand what’s going on.

• Resist the urge to conform to a familiar solution by making time to explore what’s possible going forward. Focus on what’s unique about the circumstance and zoom out to see the big picture.

Looking for the Easy Way

This blocker is about the path of least resistance. Although it might be more efficient — at least in the short term — to pick the easier path, it’s not necessarily more effective. This habit is a block to learning agility because it allows you to sidestep the learning curve. The truth is that there is always a short-term cost to learning. It’s not necessarily a steep cost, but it will take some investment of your time, energy, and focus. When you look for the easy way, you’ll save some time — but the lack of learning and growth will ultimately limit your progress.

Keep these tips in mind:

If you are honest with yourself, you gain a higher perspective, one that allows you to observe your actions and how they create patterns.

• Don’t focus on what’s comfortable and familiar. Instead, practice getting comfortable being a little bit uncomfortable.

• Efforts to stay in your comfort zone will just lead you back to the easy way, so shake your thinking up: If you typically focus on the numbers, focus on the big ideas. If you default to the project plan, pay more attention to your interactions with people.

• When defining a new issue, avoid familiar jargon and professional terminology that masks the nuance of what’s happening. Instead, use plain language to describe the full picture.

Looking for The Excuse

This blocker is about avoiding the thing you know you should do, but blaming someone or something else for the evasion. My boss asked me to get this done right away, so there’s no time to brainstorm better approaches. Or, I think I could be more creative with this assignment, but it doesn’t seem like anybody really cares about innovation. I’ll keep it bare bones. Or, I have to take this compliance course to stay current, so I’ll just do the minimum to get it done. These are examples of the kinds of excuses we casually accept to avoid the challenge of learning.

Keep these tips in mind:

• Transformation-ready leaders don’t look at their overflowing list of responsibilities and ask where the shortcuts are; they ask where they can leverage learning for better results. So don’t let your daily workload convince you that you’re too busy to aim higher. Unless you’re learning and growing, you’re really just treading water.

• If you have a good idea, share it. Don’t rationalize it away by thinking that it will slow things down or waste people’s time. Great ideas are a catalyst for learning, but only when they’re voiced.

• Don’t wait for an invitation. Give yourself permission and take the initiative to set your learning loose, whether or not your leaders have formerly asked that of you.

Just because the potential for learning is everywhere doesn’t mean you’ll find it. But by discontinuing the things that slow down or block your learning, you simultaneously create the potential for a surge in the activities that accelerate your learning agility. This is the recipe for exponential growth.

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Leaders: Break Through Your Learning Blockers