Only One Way to Learn

by Sharlyn Lauby on October 12, 2009

Learning fascinates me.  Many people only know one way to learn.  The hard way. Forget all that stuff you’ve read about Malcolm Knowles, adult education, and andragogy.  You know, the stuff about how adults need to be motivated, training has to contain a WIIFM, the topic must be relevant to work, and employ a problem solving approach.  The truth is most people learn not by listening to the advice of their friends/mentors/colleagues but by making mistakes.

Of course, I’m being a little tongue and cheek here…don’t completely throw Knowles and his theories out the door.  But indulge me for a moment.  There’s something to be said about people who can only learn the hard way.

Here’s a true story a colleague and I were chatting about recently.  A manager is really struggling right now.  Maybe they know it; maybe they don’t.  At first, you offer up some very sugar-coated pearls of wisdom.  Something like, “I remember when that happened to me…this is what I did.”  Manager doesn’t get it.

Then you try the tough love tactic.  Have a one-on-one with the manager.  Maybe you take them out to lunch or try to chat over drinks.  Your goal is to get them to realize there’s a train wreck coming and they need to get off the tracks. You’re a little more direct.  The manager still doesn’t change their approach.

Last try.  You get mad.  You figure the shock of seeing you so upset will give them an epiphany.  You tell the manager that they’re absolutely blind not to see this coming.  You paint the picture that the world just might come to a grinding halt if they don’t get their act together – and fast. Of course, the manager doesn’t listen.  They might even think you’re a lunatic and begin to distance themselves from you.

Until, of course, they discover you were right.

The challenge these two people face is a common one:

For the Manager, do you try to re-engage the colleague who forewarned you?  Enlist their expertise in fixing the predicament?  Will your ego allow you to do it?

For the Colleague, do you continue to offer help?  Knowing it’s likely that, whatever you suggest will be ignored a second time?

For most of us, the ability to learn from others is an acquired skill.  It means paying attention to what happens around you, opening your mind to new ideas, taking risks and trusting others.  Believe me when I tell you, developing the ability to learn from others is well worth the effort.

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Bonita October 12, 2009 at 12:06 pm

I used to get really frustrated in similar situations – You see it coming, but the other person has no clue. Until I read StrengthsFinder 2.0 and discovered that one of my strengths is strategic, or seeing patterns or outcomes that others might not see. The manager is not being stubborn. They just don’t see what you or I might see if we are strategic. The challenge is to present the information in a way that the manager can discover what is happening through coaching, hopefully before the train wrecks.

Michael VanDervort October 12, 2009 at 12:54 pm

Nice post, Sharlyn!

Barry Stern October 12, 2009 at 2:13 pm

I love the germ of your thought. I believe that being a “professional learner” at any age has a cumulative effect which over the course of one’s career is THE determinant of how high one flies. The way in which we have distorted our own true nature is fascinating. For as long as there has been recorded history, “learning from experience” has been central to survival. BF Skinner founded a whole scientific branch of psychology around this innate wiring and showed its function across species. While we have developed an ability to think, one unfortunate byproduct is to resist this core nature. So I say, for both Manager and Colleague, “go native.” To the Manager – get over your ego and learn something! To the Colleague, just do it (again)!

Karla Porter October 12, 2009 at 3:59 pm

This rings many bells in my head.. The manager who can put personal & professional development at the top of their agenda over ego will go back, re-engage and potentially form a tight bond with their knowledgeable colleague. The colleague who places the mission of the organization and sees the value in their colleague’s success will overcome feelings of “I told you so” and “you should have listened to me in the first place” and extend a life preserver.

At least, that’s how good working relationships should be..

Nice thought provoking values oriented post Sharlyn!

Tim G October 12, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Well said Sharlyn. I spent many years in team-related work; training, problem solving, managing conflict and so on. The one theme I always brought to the groups I work with was “We learn best when we decide to learn from each other.” It’s a decision, a choice.
When you work with me, you are working with dozens of people who provided me great examples and advice through the years. I’d have to say I haven’t had an original thought in years, just the right combination of learning coming together at the right time.

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