OpX Insights

Why Can’t We Learn?

written By Mike Leigh

Leaders often tell me they want a “learning organization” and to “improve every day.”  The evidence is strong that companies with a learning culture are the most innovative and successful.  So why do organizations and their leaders struggle to develop this culture?

In an article in the Harvard Business Review titled Why Organizations Don’t Learn, the author tells us we have biases and human tendencies that keep us from learning, one of which is a bias toward success.

I see this bias almost every time I work with clients.  Leaders often have the attitude that improvement efforts are failures if they do not provide ROI.  Clearly results are important in the long-term, but the learning that occurs from failures and mistakes is also valuable.  The article lists four obstacles that cause this bias and offers countermeasures to overcome them:

  1. Fear of failure.  This fear is rampant and institutionalized in many organizations.  Leaders structure improvement efforts such that success only comes with ROI.  Countermeasure:  Leaders must destigmatize failure and constantly reinforce the message that mistakes are learning opportunities.
  1. A fixed mindset.  This mindset causes people to want to appear smart at all costs.  It limits learning because of too much focus on performing well.  Countermeasure:  Leaders must embrace a growth mindset and a belief that their employees can develop and improve.
  1. Overreliance on past performance.  In hiring and promotion, leaders put too much emphasis on past performance instead of potential.  Countermeasure:  Consider potential in selection decisions, and make it clear to candidates that this is what you are looking for.  It will encourage new employees to be innovative and to develop themselves, and may also improve the diversity of your candidate pool.
  1. The attribution bias.  This phenomenon occurs when people attribute success to hard work and skill, but blame failures on bad luck.  This hinders learning unless they recognize that failure came from their mistakes.  Countermeasure:  Use data-driven approaches to identify the factors of success and failure.

Leaders – it’s time for YOU to learn to support innovation, congratulate initiative, and see mistakes as learning opportunities, instead of only asking for results!

Send your questions or comments to Mike@OpXSolutionsllc.com