Bringing a growth mindset to the learning function

Bringing a growth mindset to the learning function

Despite advances in learning delivery through digital transformation and content libraries, learning functions often are one of the least innovative parts of the business.
28 June 2021

The mandates that organizational leaders hand down to learning functions, and the acceptance of those mandates, is the heart of the problem.

Carol Dweck’s work on “growth mindset” has caught the fancy of organizations the world over, and why wouldn’t it? The core supposition of a growth mindset is that an individual’s talents and capabilities can evolve over time; at its core are the underlying beliefs that people hold about intelligence and learning. It is with deep sadness that we report that the function charged with building this growth mindset in most organizations remains hostage to deeply “fixed mindset” thinking.

Although the idea of a growth mindset is commonly discussed in corporate learning programs, many leaders adopt a fixed mindset when it comes to envisioning the learning function’s role and capabilities. To quote Dweck, “Our work environments, too, can be full of fixed mindset triggers.” Business leaders need to shift their views of what the learning function is and what it can do.

In contrast to a growth mindset, a fixed mindset is characterized by more static parameters surrounding what can be accomplished and tight boundaries around familiar activities. In an individual, a fixed mindset constrains risk-taking and a willingness to experiment and innovate. At an organizational level, we see learning functions captive to a form of risk aversion and a lack of innovation that has all of the hallmarks of deeply fixed mindset thinking.

Despite the advances in learning delivery through digital transformation and content libraries, learning functions often are one of the least innovative parts of the business. Critically, the fundamental mandates and approaches to learning have remained unchallenged. The irony isn’t lost on us. For most people, “learning” occurred in classrooms at school and in their early years of professional training. As a result, most organizational leaders operate from a very fixed mindset of what a learning function does and how it does it.

The mandates that organizational leaders hand down to learning functions, and the acceptance of those mandates, is the heart of the problem. For most organizations, learning is an act of providing content for individual improvement. Learning becomes synonymous with training for individuals or a reward for talent to go to a nice resort for a week, enjoy a tasty buffet and share some interesting ideas before returning to work. Improvement in this landscape is merely about making what we have done before marginally better or cheaper, despite the overwhelming evidence that our approaches don’t yield the type of organizational impact we need. The boundaries, mandates and activities for most learning functions are very clearly fixed.

As an example of the futility of this fixed mindset approach to learning, one financial services organization spent more than half a decade teaching leaders how to create psychological safety through every permutation of that important concept: They had taught “difficult conversations,” “challenging conversations,” “trust equations,” “conversations that are hard,” “conversations that aren’t easy” … you get our point! Yet, the needle didn’t move. The innovations occurred amid very narrowly defined parameters: “What new content can we teach?” It wasn’t until Todd asked them, “How dumb are your people, and why can’t they learn this?” The question shocked and offended them, but it also started to pull down a lot of their fixed thinking about what learning is. People had been “taught” variants on the same theme for years. The problem wasn’t the content; it was that the ways the learning function sought to impact performance were too narrowly defined.

Psychological safety, like many priorities in the modern organization, is not an individual competence — it is a social one. Yet learning functions return, again and again, to the same channels and mechanisms to help people learn: for example, “let’s do some e-learning or run a program for individuals.” These are both very fixed approaches that keep learning functions trapped. The move to more “growth” footing is something that continues to evade most learning functions.

We get it; it is a scary move. Challenging our fixed thinking about what learning is and how we do it is a risky proposition. It challenges what stakeholders expect, it has much greater risks than pumping out a few more e-learning modules that no one cares about, and it requires the evolution of skills and capabilities that aren’t well-honed. Put simply, to truly add value to organizations, learning functions need to take the step toward a growth footing, and that step is scary and politically perilous.

What would a growth mindset” learning function look like?

Learning leaders can’t enable this move on their own, as they are limited by what their stakeholders will allow. We have put together the following table that highlights what a move toward more growth thinking in a learning function might look like.

Let us also highlight three things that we would see as evidence of this movement:

1. Learning is built into work.

Learning becomes built into how organizations approach pressing strategic problems, critical hand-off points in the value chain and how teams work. It is not abstracted from the day-to-day; it is part of it. This is not programmatic learning, it is learning in situ — amid difficult day-to-day decisions, tense negotiations and boring team meetings. It is the integration of provocateurs, frameworks and measures at key points with the organization’s day-to-day workings.

2. Learning measures disruption, not just happiness.

The most common fixed mindset measure in the learning function is the “happy sheet,” or satisfaction rating at the end of a program. Stop it! If learning is about change, transformation and impact, it is going to need to drive more unlearning than learning — in other words, it is going to disrupt unproductive norms and patterns. Good learning in this world is not only at work, but also very uncomfortable and challenging. This is what needs to be measured, not the “Uber five-star” rating system we currently use.

3. Learning is something that leaders are expected to do, and it impacts their promotions.

A learning function cannot be expected to accomplish this on its own; it needs to help infiltrate and shape leaders as teachers. In a growth mindset world, learning is leveraging leaders as teachers, in their teams, divisions and cross-functionally, but they are also assessing them for their ability to teach and develop people. The performance of a leader as a teacher, and their demonstrated ability to grow and promote their people, needs to become a driving force in promotion. As a leader, if you can’t grow and teach people, we’re not going to give you more people to lead!

The irony that organizations believe so fervently in having a growth mindset and yet their learning functions remain so clearly fixed in their thinking saddens us. Changes have never come more quickly at organizations, and it is time for us to unshackle learning functions to become drivers of much larger-scale organizational value. Bringing a growth mindset to how we think about learning is the right place to start.

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