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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