Fostering a learning culture is key to achieving the agility needed to succeed in the current business landscape. An organization’s ability to adapt is dependent on its people’s ability to learn, spot knowledge gaps, grow their skill base, and ask the right questions instead of answering them. But how can leaders nurture a learning culture in a hybrid world? With the rise in flexible working options, people are increasingly engaging with one another in new and different ways. Thus, the way that people learn, both as individuals and as teams, also needs to change.
The first thing to note is, having let people decide how best they will work, organizations also need to trust them to make choices about how they learn. Within any organization, each team or function is a small pocket of distinct expertise with its own unique culture and dynamics. Each team has its own specific needs and will collaborate and innovate differently. It should be no surprise, then, that a cookie-cutter approach to team learning will not work. Rather than C-suites trying to lead learning from the center, power must move to the edges.
Executive leadership teams should empower each function to make decisions about how they will learn as a collective. Furthermore, they should actively facilitate this by providing managers and function leaders with an overarching strategy that will enable them to take the reins or by ensuring that any organization-wide development experience exemplifies what this decentralizing of power looks like in order to cultivate the right attitudes, mindsets, and behaviors in others. At Impact, we call these role-modeling individuals ‘mindful agents’. When the power to make choices about learning is properly decentralized, innovation and decision-making can come from anyone in the team, helping to foster a more inclusive and agile approach and ensuring that the learning is relevant and impactful.
Quality conversations and ownership
In a learning culture, the role of people managers is less about choosing the direction and more about clearing the way. With this management approach, individuals are empowered to take ownership of their own learning journeys and career paths. They feel comfortable soliciting a conversation with their manager about their career and are able to openly share the development path they need to get them there. However, there does need to be a starting point for this; managers need to foster this mindset in their people and cultivate the reciprocal, trusting relationships that will enable these honest exchanges to happen. In this way, the manager takes on a coaching role, whose priorities include being intentional about catalyzing meaningful conversations, removing obstacles, and providing the resources and access that people need in order to achieve their development goals.
Meaning, value, and structure
However, learning cultures can only emerge in team environments that supply three crucial components: meaning, value, and structure. The primary capability for ensuring these needs are met is scanning. Leaders must constantly pay attention to this, asking themselves whether their teams and their people have meaning, value, and structure in their working lives. And the need for this only increases in a remote or hybrid context. With distance in space and time, leaders must double down on their ability to notice and develop new ways of scanning situations, whether they be in face-to-face meetings, Teams chats, emails, or virtual catch-ups across time zones.
- For purpose, leaders must attend to whether it is present in how they run their team. Do their people have purpose? Do they understand how it aligns with the broader company objectives and vision? It also means instilling this in each of their team members so that, together, they become a collective of mindful agents, each of them able to scan virtual or face-to-face team situations and pick up on a lack of purpose and then feel comfortable calling it out, asking ‘why are we doing this?’ or ‘is this a good use of our time?’
- When it comes to value, leaders must notice whether people feel valued, whether they feel that their teammates, leader, and organization value them as a person and the work that they do. Feeling valued as an individual is at the heart of inclusion, and it is imperative that leaders foster this in their teams, regardless of the distance between each of its members.
- Finally, to look at structure is to look at the processes, norms, standards, and methods that the team works by. Leaders must continuously analyze their team environments and the processes they operate through and evaluate how well they’re serving everyone. This is particularly resonant in a hybrid world, in which the decisions that each person makes about how they work will bring different requirements for psychological safety and optimum working conditions.
Learning cultures are nurtured by leaders that are prepared to divert power to the periphery, trust others to make decisions, be intentional about having meaningful conversations, support and encourage ownership, and constantly attend to whether their people’s needs for meaning, value and structure are met in each virtual or in-person situation. Cultivating a learning culture is, therefore, about providing expert support, challenge, and empathy: the three hallmarks of human-centered leadership.
Developing these human-centered leadership capabilities and providing them to teams is not impossible in a hybrid context, but it can be harder. Leaders must therefore double down on their efforts to notice and support and develop new techniques for doing this across distances and through virtual mediums. But with this challenge comes great opportunity. With the need to collectively find new ways of doing, working, learning, and leading comes the imperative for continuous, collaborative innovation, for noticing what’s missing and asking how it can be improved. And this is what a learning culture is all about.
Manuel Larenas and Sarah Osteen are both senior consultants at Impact USA.
If you are interested in developing a learning culture or want to better support your leaders by providing expert support, challenge, and empathy, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch to start a conversation.