Barriers to learning

If we were to attempt to draw up a comprehensive list of those things that stand in the way of learning, it would be a very long list indeed. Opportunities for learning are around us all of the time, but so too are potential or actual barriers to such learning. Rather than look in more general terms at the obstacles to learning, it is probably more profitable for each individual to think carefully about what may stand in his or her way. What are the things that are likely to knock you out of your stride when you are attempting to learn? What frustrates you in your attempts to get a better understanding of what is happening around you in the workplace? What prevents you from developing your skills and learning from your experience? These are all important questions that are worthy of our attention. If you struggle to answer them on your own, you may find it helpful to get together with one or more colleagues to compare notes. Similarly, if you are a manager, you may wish to look more broadly at the issues instead of focusing simply on your own learning. You may want to consider the people for whom you are responsible – what might prevent them from learning? One very strong barrier to learning which, unfortunately, is quite common in the workplace is a culture which does not value learning. This can manifest itself in a number of ways but, most commonly, it appears as an attitude of ‘just get on with the job’. In some organisations (or sections of organisations, such as teams), there may be a culture of defensiveness which discourages people from looking at situations in a new light or from trying out new ideas. Unfortunately, this can lead to people feeling that it is unsafe to try anything new, and so learning opportunities become very restricted. Where such a culture exists, this can be a major challenge to managers. Indeed, it can be a significant test of one’s leadership abilities to be able to influence such a destructive culture and shape it in the direction of a more positive approach to learning. A learning organisation is one which seeks to harness all the capabilities of its staff and to promote learning wherever possible. That is, a learning organisation is one which sees learning not simply something that happens in response to having made a mistake, but rather an everyday part of working life – constantly looking for opportunities to develop and improve. Developing a learning organisation is not something that can be done overnight. However, it is an important challenge for those organisations, or parts of organisations, that currently have a culture which discourages learning. It involves looking closely at the organisation and considering which aspects of it are supportive of learning and which stand in the way of personal and professional development. Of course, individuals too have a responsibility to identify what helps and what hinders when it comes to learning but this will be reinforced and supported if the wider organisation takes such matters seriously and does more than pay lip service to them.

Dr Neil Thompson                        

Neil’s website and blog are at

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