As technology advances and the world of work shifts and evolves, one skill set is standing apart as critically important in every industry: the ability (and willingness) to learn new things.
People who are great learners often demonstrate quick thinking, problem-solving skills, mental agility, creativity, resilience, and emotional intelligence, all of which are key indicators of success in an ever-changing professional landscape.
Leaders who create “learning cultures” can set their companies up for success by helping employees at every level improve their ability to learn and develop those critical soft skills. And with a company full of strong learners, employers can be better prepared to meet unexpected challenges, overcome obstacles, solve problems, and innovate in their field.
What is a learning culture?
In short, a learning culture is a place where individual employees, teams, and entire organizations are encouraged to learn and grow continuously. Leaders encourage curiosity, support the sharing of knowledge among employees and teams, and create spaces for innovation and experimentation.
It’s important to note that this also means leaders in a learning culture must allow employees the freedom to fail, ask questions, and to say “I don’t know.” In a learning culture, failure is a step forward, not a disaster, and “I don’t know” is an opportunity to learn something new, not a shortcoming.
What are the obstacles to creating a learning culture?
Some organizations might face resistance when it comes to implementing a learning culture. Failure is scary, and saying “I don’t know” and going out on a limb to learn new things can make employees feel like they aren’t smart or skilled enough. Others might not see the point – they’re good at their jobs, so why stretch for new heights?
To overcome these obstacles, it’s critical for leaders to create an environment where employees trust each other and their managers, and where they feel safe to fail. This needs to start at the top: executive leaders can talk openly about the skill sets they lack or want to develop further, times when they’ve failed, issues they’re struggling with in their learning goals, and problems or ideas they could use help with. When employees see the company’s leaders modeling these behaviors, they’ll know that they are free to admit to their own mistakes and ask their own questions.
It’s also easier to get employee buy-in when leaders create opportunities for individuals to learn about things they’re actually interested in and passionate about. Employees can work on skills and areas of improvement that support their own personal and professional goals, while contributing to the company’s overall learning culture and growing agility.
What does a learning culture look like in practice?
Learning cultures can take many forms, and they can look very different depending on an organization’s industry, goals, size, and structure, among other things. However, there are a few strategies that will work for a wide variety of companies:
- Prioritize a growth mindset. Creating processes and habits that encourage continuous learning starts with the need for leaders and employees to have a growth mindset. It’s easy for companies to fall into complacency, keeping their operations business-as-usual because “we’ve always done it this way.” To make learning a priority and a part of the company culture, leaders should instead approach the company’s policies and day-to-day operations with constant curiosity and questioning how and why decisions are made. This doesn’t mean that every decision has to be changed, but it does mean asking questions and looking for opportunities to grow as individual employees, teams, and an organization as a whole.
- Have leaders practice the behaviors they want others to adopt. During meetings, ask a lot of questions about what decisions are being made and how the group came to those decisions. Reflect out loud on individual and group practices, and ask for input on which things are going well and how things might be done differently. Keeping that curiosity and growth mindset in regular practice can help employees at every level see how they might build it into their own workday routines.
- Create opportunities for structured learning. Encourage employees to schedule time in their day specifically to learn. Create goals and track progress toward them. These don’t need to be huge, time-consuming projects. Even taking five minutes a day to read an industry publication, practice a new software, or meet with someone whose job you know nothing about can make a huge difference over time. It’s helpful to create short-term goals to help build the habit by collecting easy wins. For example, you might aim for reading five articles, meeting with two employees, or attending one networking event.
- Make it a team effort. Some people learn very well on their own, but there are huge benefits to making the learning process into a communal event. Employees who work together on learning goals or create supportive learning communities can hold each other accountable as they work toward goals, ask for specific feedback from others who know what you’re working toward, and share milestones and obstacles with others who are supporting your progress. In addition, it has been proven that teaching other people helps individuals retain the information they’re learning, so by sharing new knowledge with managers or coworkers, employees can deepen their own retention of the information and contribute to the overall culture where learning is celebrated.
- Acknowledge and reward great learning habits. Leaders should observe their employees and take note of the habits and practices they’re working on. Is a particular employee asking more questions in meetings, asking for help with a goal they’re struggling with, or regularly checking in with teammates to support them in their learning process? Point it out, support their efforts, encourage them to continue their great habits, and ask questions about how they’ve managed to create such successful learning habits. Support and encouragement are strong motivators that can help keep employees on the right track with their developing learning habits. You might also consider tangible reward systems – bonuses, promotions, or other perks – tied to the behaviors you want employees to practice.
Learning is a skill, and just like any skill, it takes practice to master. A learning culture isn’t just about improvement – it’s also about getting comfortable with failure, because in the process of learning, there will be many stops and starts. In addition, not everyone learns best in the exact same way, so it may take time to figure out what learning strategies and goals work best for an individual, team, or organization as a whole.
The most important thing to remember is that cultivating a learning culture is a learning process in and of itself, so leaders should be open and clear about what they’re trying to accomplish, what’s working well, and where there are opportunities to pivot, innovate, try something new, and learn as you go.