As an executive coach, Kristi Hedges speaks regularly at corporate leadership development programs. During discussions, participants often confess the real reason they’re in the room, and it’s rarely “to grow and learn.” Time and again, the reasons include: they are checking a box on their development plan, their manager told them to come, or they’ve been told that their participation will increase the chance of a promotion.
The reality is that most people are not set up to take advantage of development opportunities. Many organizations view learning as something extra, something to fit in on top of the regular work. But to create a culture that encourages employee growth, managers need to make learning an expectation — not an option.
Learning helps people keep a broad perspective. When we feel expert at something, sociologists have shown, the earned dogmatism effect sets in, causing us to be more close-minded and to disregard new ideas and perspectives. For managers, suggesting that team members go to a training or take an online course isn’t enough; for many professionals, that’s just more work on their plates. Instead, managers need to encourage continual learning with supportive behaviors that, in turn, will shape their company culture.
Be a vocal role model. Managers should frame learning as a growth opportunity, not as a quid pro quo for promotion.
A good starting point is simply to talk about your own development. When managers open up about their personal areas for improvement, it becomes more acceptable for everyone else to do the same. Ask yourself: What skills are you most excited to develop? What areas do you need to grow the most in? What insights have you found helpful in accomplishing these goals? Then share your answers with the rest of your team.
You should come back from every workshop or training with a story about what you learned. Rather than the typical, “It was interesting,” be specific. For example, you might say, “I thought I was a good listener, but I can see that this is a growth area for me. The day showed me new ways to interact with others, and though they aren’t necessarily comfortable for me, I’m going to try them out.”
If you talk about learning as being enjoyable, you set a playful tone that encourages people to be adaptively authentic — and open to trying new behaviors.
Celebrate growth and lean into failure. Carol Dweck and her colleagues at Stanford University recently published research showing that people don’t simply have passions, they develop them. The best way to determine what you enjoy is to try new things, even when those things are challenging or uncomfortable. If you want your team to be excited about and find purpose in their work, encourage them to be curious and experiment.
A successful learning environment celebrates growth for growth’s sake. One way to develop this kind of culture is to recognize employees when they make progress on a new initiative — even if it doesn’t hit the goal — because they have proactively created a learning opportunity for themselves and the company at large. In addition, when you promote team members, do it for their professional development, even if it means you lose them to another division.
You can also support learning by not hiding failures. One technology company I advise began instituting mandatory post-mortems for all of its product releases and major programs, no matter the results. Team members were able to both celebrate successes and illuminate failures as a matter of regular business, creating an environment that encouraged transparency and continuous learning. People felt free to discuss issues without blame, and interdepartmental communication improved.
Make it easy for people. People usually take on development opportunities on top of their regular workload, so the easier you can make it for them to find the right program, the better. A Google search for “management training” will undoubtedly lead you down a rabbit hole for hours. Instead, try asking HR for recommendations. If that doesn’t give you the results you’re looking for, crowdsource what you need. Ask colleagues inside and outside your office what they’ve recommended to their teams. You might end up with a repository of vetted ideas.
When someone is attending a program, lighten their workload to reduce stress and allow them to be present. I’ve heard many employees complain that their boss recommended them for a development program only to email them constantly throughout the session, forcing them to step out to address work issues.
And make it easy for participants to apply the learning. In an attempt to show “value,” managers often require team members to present their takeaways or train others after completing a program. But doing so just creates more work for the participant. It’s more valuable to let people apply what they’ve learned to their own projects first. This gives them the opportunity to determine what lessons are relevant before sharing them with the rest of the team.
Foster new experiences. Research shows that to be inspired, we need to transcend current thought and become aware of new or better possibilities. As the adage goes, if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.
Cross-functional projects, role rotations, and geographic relocations are just a few ways to expose people to new learning experiences. Special assignments that last at least a year will help give your team a chance to “eat their own cooking,” or witness the impact of their decisions. People benefit most and feel empowered when you allow them to weigh in on what learning opportunities are of the greatest interest to them.
New experiences can feel daunting, especially when someone is accomplished in their current role — but that’s exactly why you should foster them. Only by tackling unfamiliar challenges will people get the feedback they need to learn. Your team may not always succeed when faced with challenging situations, and that’s OK. The goal is for them to learn from the task, not necessarily to knock it out of the park.
Companies are investing considerable money and time into developing talent, but without doing the up-front work to ensure that leaders are building a learning culture. Frontline managers have the largest and most immediate influence. If you’re a manager who wants to grow your team, demonstrate that you’re committed to growth yourself.