Don’t confuse experience with learning

It is commonly assumed that the more experience a person has, the more learning they will have done, and thus the more they will have to offer, but it’s important to realise that this is a very unsafe assumption to make. We don’t have to go far generally to come across someone who has a lot of experience, but has learned relatively little from it. There can be people with three years’ experience in a particular field who have done an excellent job of drawing out the lessons from that learning, of really making that experience count in terms of improving their practice and developing their confidence. But, there can also be people with thirty years’ experience who have done very little learning during that time. The technical term for this is ‘plateauing’ – that is, climbing to begin with, but then levelling off and not getting any higher (in terms of knowledge, skills and effectiveness).

‘Experience is the best teacher’ is a saying that we used to hear a lot at one time, despite the fact that it isn’t true. It is what we do with experience that is the best teacher. Just having an experience will teach us nothing, of course. We have to draw out the learning from that experience for it to really make a difference to us. We should not confuse experience (which provides the raw materials for learning) with actual learning, just as the ingredients of a cake are not the cake – it’s what you do with the ingredients that produces the cake. This is why learning support processes like supervision, mentoring and coaching can be so invaluable, because they can play a very helpful role in ‘processing’ experience, making sense of it in ways that enable us to learn and develop.

What is also important about this is that it helps us to understand the importance of an active approach towards learning. To get the most out of the learning opportunities life presents to us (whether in our working lives or our private lives), we need to play an active role, we need to make things happen. Unfortunately, the way our education system works, the opposite is often what is encouraged – a passive approach where other people take charge of our learning (teachers, trainers, tutors and so on) and we tend to go along with what they decide, what they organise, what they prioritise and so on. But, we are increasingly recognising that the people who are most successful in converting their experience into learning are the ones who adopt an active approach to their own learning needs (‘self-directed learning’, to use the technical term).

Sadly, having lots of experience, but not having learned much from it can actually be counterproductive – that is, we are not only missing out on learning, but the boredom and lack of stimulation in experiences that are not producing learning can numb our senses, reduce motivation and job satisfaction, discourage creativity and contribute to burnout. Consequently, a lot of workplace problems (and, indeed, potentially in our personal lives) can boil down to experience without learning, without the stimulation, reward, motivation and progress that learning can bring.

A lot of basic learning happens spontaneously (young children learning how to walk, for example), but the more advanced and complex the learning, the more we need to make the effort to bring it about, rather than make the mistake of just assuming that experience will automatically produce learning. Each day, week, month or year of experience will no doubt make us older, but it will not necessarily make us wiser.

Living and learning

Living and learning

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said that what does not kill us makes us stronger, and he was nearly right. Only nearly? Yes, because much of what does not kill us has no effect on us whatsoever – it simply passes us by. Our life experience has the potential to make us stronger, but only if we capitalise on the opportunities presented. So, a more realistic aphorism would be: what does not kill us has the potential to make us stronger if we take the trouble to learn from that experience.

But much will depend on our understanding of what learning is all about, how the model of learning we adopt conceptualises it. For example, if we take the traditional model of learning as one of gathering facts and figures, filling our heads with information that may or may not be useful at a later date (the ‘banking‘ model of learning that Paulo Freire was so critical of), then that presents us with little scope for learning from life experiences.

What can also hold us back in terms of models of learning is the tendency to see learners as having fixed personalities (or ‘essences’, to use the technical term) – for example, when people say things like ‘it’s my nature, it’s just the way I am’, as if change is not possible. Such a model of learning assumes that the individual remains untouched by their learning, except for perhaps having added a few more bytes of information to their hard disk or giving them the opportunity to practise skills.

An alternative model of learning that can get us away from these limitations is what is known as existential learning, rooted in existentialist philosophy. According to this approach learners are not fixed entities to be topped up with additional information or more well-oiled skills. Learners are people on a life journey, changing in response to the circumstances they find themselves in. We are constantly faced with situations where we have to make decisions, where we have to choose which branch in the road we go down. Those decisions shape not only the direction we go in, but also who we are. That is, we are not fixed entities on a journey, we are that journey; the journey is a central part of our spirituality, our sense of who we are and how we fit into the wider world. For many that sense of spirituality comes from religion, but, whether religious or not, we all have a spiritual path we are following.

Not so long ago any mention of spirituality outside of religion would have been met with muttered barbs of ‘tree hugging’ and being ‘wired to a moonbeam’. But, increasingly now it is being recognised that spirituality is an important part of being human and that we have to get past any reluctance to engage with spiritual matters. Existential learning recognises this.

Existential learning is learning that changes us in some way, that empowers us to do things differently, to see things differently and, importantly, to feel things differently. Existential learning transforms us in some way. As Nietzsche would see it, it makes us stronger.

There is a parallel here with leadership, particularly self-leadership. A leader is not just someone who keeps the organisational wheels turning, but rather transforms the situation to make sure that they are turning in the right direction (following the best path). Self-leadership is about making sure we are clear about where we are going with our work and our lives more broadly (our path) and what decisions we need to make to follow that path and get where we want to be. Existential learning means making the changes we need to in order to be able to get the most out of our journey.

Existential learning is a key part of the Avenue Professional Development Programme: www.apdp.org.uk

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Influencing organisational culture

‘Essentialism’ is the technical terms for the idea that each us has a fixed nature: we are who we are and there’s not a lot we can do about it. Despite ample evidence to show that this is a seriously flawed way of thinking, it remains a very common (mis)understanding of human psychology. While it would be foolish not to recognise very strong and lasting patterns of behaviour, though and emotional response in each of us, it would be equally foolish not to recognise that people can and do change.

Such changes can be self-initiated – that is, as a result of an explicit decision made: ‘I will be more patient from now on’; ‘I must cut down on fatty foods as I am worried about my cholesterol levels’; and so on. However, they are often in response to the circumstances we find ourselves in and we may not even notice we have changed, so subtle can the differences be. This is often the case in an organisational setting where the influence of other individuals, of groups and of the organisational culture can be very strong.

I want to now focus on the organisational culture issues as these can be particularly significant. This is because cultures influence us in very powerful but very subtle ways – we slide into commonly accepted norms and patterns, generally without recognising that this process is happening.

This can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances. For example, some cultures are very negative and are characterised by a degree of defeatism and cynicism, manifestations of low morale. On the other hand, cultures can be very positive influences, encouraging a supportive set of relationships, promoting learning, creativity and innovation and generating a sense of security. This is the hallmark of good teamwork – the sense of shared endeavour that makes people feel that, however challenging the workplace may be, ‘we are in this together’.

This is where leadership comes in. A major challenge for any leader is to be able to influence the culture in a positive direction, to bring about positive changes and to block negative ones. ‘Challenge’ is exactly the right word, as influencing a culture is a very difficult and demanding undertaking. But it is also a challenge that is worth investing time and energy in, as the positive benefits can be immense, while the price we pay for allowing a negative culture to persist is very high indeed.

Managers therefore need to take these issues very seriously and be prepared to develop the knowledge, skills and confidence to be able to shape cultures positively.  These can be developed, although not overnight. It involves building on our existing interpersonal skills to develop trust and credibility.

However, in my People Skills book, I make the point that it is not just managers who are leaders – professional staff can and should see themselves as leaders too. So, we all need to be thinking about what influence we can have on the culture around us and not just leave this to managers. For me this is part of self-leadership – the ability to be clear about where we are going with our work, career and life overall and helping to create the circumstances that will get us there plus the commitment to doing so.

Cultures are sets of habits, unwritten rules and taken-for-granted assumptions that develop into shared meanings. If we want to influence the culture in a positive direction, then we need to identify the negative elements and challenge them, while also recognising the positive elements and building on them.

How easy or otherwise it is to influence a culture will vary from circumstance to circumstance. Sometimes, it can be a long and difficult journey, but at other times, it can be relatively straightforward – for example, a culture characterised by a lack of communication can easily be changed by team members making a concerted effort to communicate with one another. Cultures are very powerful, but they are not all-powerful. We have a choice, we can either seek to influence our culture or we can resign ourselves to becoming passive victims of that culture, with all the detrimental effects that entails.

Neil Thompson’s latest book is People Management (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which is a follow up to his highly successful People Skills (3rd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and the highly acclaimed The People Solutions Sourcebook (2nd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). His books are available from http://astore.amazon.co.uk/neilthomp-21/.

The challenge of leadership

The challenge of leadership

I was recently a speaker at a conference on leadership. It is a topic that has interested me for some time. I have been particularly intrigued by the idea of a leader as someone who influences an organisational culture in a positive direction. The conference chair used a phrase that made an impact on me and which I have already started using in my training on these issues: he described a leader as a thermostat not a thermometer – that is, someone who can affect the ‘temperature’ in a team, section or whole organisation, rather than someone who just reflects that temperature.

Where there is a lack of leadership there will be managers and professionals (and yes, indeed, it is not just managers that can and should be leaders) who become passive victims of the culture in which they are operating. Of course, it has to be recognised that organisational cultures can be very powerful influences indeed on not only group and individual behaviour, but also thought patterns and emotional responses. Such influences can be highly positive (empowering, motivating, supportive, nurturing and energising) and can create a strong sense of shared endeavour and high morale, with a great deal of learning going on. However, they can also be highly negative (disempowering, demotivating, unsupportive, macho and draining), resulting in little real sense of teamwork and a culture of low morale that can be quite destructive for all concerned and which can stand in the way of any real learning taking place.

Of course, leaders do not have complete control over the cultures they inhabit – the reality of organisational life is far more complex than that. However, there are ways and means in which leaders can make their presence felt in shaping cultures in a positive direction. Some people make the mistake of assuming that, because cultures are very powerful, they are all-powerful and that there is therefore little that can be done to affect them. This mistaken assumption can be especially prevalent where low morale is to the fore, as low morale tends to promote negativity, defeatism and even cynicism, which then discourages any challenges to that culture.

In reality, cultures are sets of habits, taken-for-granted assumptions and shared meanings, and so much of their force comes from the dead weight of habit. In some circumstances, cultural change can be a long and difficult process, while in others it can be relatively straightforward. For example, where there is a culture characterised by people not communicating with one another, an effective leader could potentially change that culture fairly quickly by making sure that people start communicating with one another. New sets of (more positive) habits can be formed quite quickly at times.

Of course, leadership involves an important set of skills, and those skills need to be underpinned by a degree of confidence, as we will not be able to serve as a positive influence if we lack confidence in our ability to do so. Herein lies a considerable irony. Cultures of low morale – those cultures that cry out most for effective leadership – are precisely the breeding ground for low confidence. So, where leadership is needed most could very well be where it is least likely to be found or to flourish.

So, while leadership has much to offer we should not see it in simplistic terms as some sort of magic solution. There are many challenges involved in taking leadership forward, but it is to be hoped that the benefits of improved leadership are sufficient to spur us to find ways of building on the foundations we already have. With this in mind, one thing we should be aware of is that, as long ago as the 1920s, Mary Parker Follett was making the vitally important point that one of the primary tasks of leadership was to support the development of other leaders – that is, good leadership begets leadership.

People Management, Neil’s latest book, is due to be published by Palgrave Macmillan on March 22nd.

Learning for life

I have just completed a very busy period where I provided a great deal of training for a number of organisations. Reflecting on the experience what strikes me is the huge difference in attitudes to learning. At one extreme we have the semi-burnt out cynic who seems determined to let their negativity spoil the positive learning environment I have worked hard to create. Thankfully such people are in a small minority. At the other extreme are the people who become fully immersed in the process of learning. They show an enthusiasm for taking on new ideas, reviewing and/or consolidating their existing knowledge and skills and really want training to make a positive difference to practice. They embrace learning opportunities with zeal, put energy into the process and become energised by it. No doubt the differences in attitudes are in large part personal differences, but I am also aware what a difference organisational culture makes. Organisations can have cultures that are supportive of learning (it is recognised that it is dangerous not to keep learning); take no notice of learning (too busy chasing their tails to learn) ; or actively discourage learning (change is seen as threatening). So, how much learning takes place will depend on (i) the organisational culture; and (ii) to what extent individuals allow themselves to be influenced by their culture vs. the extent to which they take ownership of their own learning.

Asking the right questions?

I was recently contacted by someone who wanted my advice on asking the right questions in a coaching context. He explained that he worked as a coach and regularly used certain questions to encourage his clients to think about how they can move forward with their work and their learning. He asked me whether I thought they were the ‘right’ questions to ask. Of course, I had to reply by saying that it all depends on the context. What will work in one set of circumstances will not necessarily work in others. I went on to explain that this is what reflective practice is about – having a ‘reflective conversation with the situation’. That is, we have to think carefully about the situation and work out what questions to ask based on what we find. I also  suggested that he should consider going a step further into critically reflective practice – in other words, asking questions that encourage reflection not only on current practices within current parameters, but also on how those parameters could be changed, on how new ways of approaching our work and our learning can be developed by looking at the wider and deeper picture (critical breadth and depth). He didn’t reply to thank me for my comments so I can only assume that wasn’t what he wanted to hear, that he just wanted me to affirm that he was on the right lines – hardly a solid basis for coaching!

To find out more about Neil’s views on critically reflective practice, see the book he co-wrote on the subject: http://astore.amazon.co.uk/neilthomp-21/detail/0230573185

What happened to enthusiasm?

In my work as a trainer, consultant, conference speaker and author I meet a wide variety of people. Perhaps it is the state of the workplace these days, but it concerns me that I come across so many people whose enthusiasm for their work has ebbed significantly. Some people I meet are semi-burnt out if not fully so, and so it was great recently when I received a thank you email from someone who had enjoyed reading the latest issue of our newsletter (www.well-being.org.uk) and had found both the articles in it very helpful and interesting. She told me that she had conveyed her enthusiasm to her colleagues and described her display as ‘doing an imitation of a two-year old’. That image captured my imagination, as it made me realise just how many of us are struggling to feel enthusiastic about what we do. So, if you still have enthusiasm, why not show it? Why not let it be known? Yes, we have major problems in the modern workplace, but it is not all bad news, so let’s celebrate the good bits. Low morale can lead so many people not to notice the good bits and cynically focus on what’s not so good, which then makes the problems even worse.

The effects of not being valued at work

Research by the American Psychological Association has found that over half the people who did not feel valued at work were planning on leaving within the next year (http://www.marketwatch.com/story/apa-survey-finds-feeling-valued-at-work-linked-to-well-being-and-performance-2012-03-08). Considering the cost of replacing staff that leave, this shows just how unwise (and expensive) it is for organisations not to show appreciation of their staff. Valuing staff can therefore be seen as an important part of workplace well-being.