I was thinking yesterday about the behaviour you sometimes see in organisations of a reticence or a fear of asking for help. When trying to suppose why this might be it struck me that it might have something to do with a style of learning that is systematic within that organisation or a particular career. My hypothesis is this: some careers or companies operate a hierarchical learning model.
That is, at each level of particular careers you learn enough to get to the next level. Once you’re at that level you then learn more to get to the next level, and so on. So, if you’re at a particular level, to ask questions or for help from ‘above’ or ‘below’ you may make you feel exposed.
This logic might also explain why colleagues may sometimes not offer help; perhaps it implies a lack of confidence in the abilities that are needed for their position.
I would suggest that the alternative style of learning to this is networked learning. This would be most prevalent in naturally less hierarchical organisations like ourselves or other consultancies or creative businesses, or at forward thinking hierarchical organisations.
Why forward thinking? Because I think that hierarchical learning isn’t conducive, in fact is obstructive to creating businesses fit for purpose for innovating within disruption. I think the behaviours it creates slows down people’s learning as they go higher up ‘the ladder’, limits their behavioural flexibility and creates a culture where people are afraid to challenge the status quo.
And what do I mean by networked learning? I think this has something to do with letting go of words like ‘expert’ and accepting that we are all learning, all of the time. And I think if we can do this, and ask any question without fear, we can shake things up and make things happen.
Societally and in the media we celebrate the beauty of youth, we see this as being fresh, open, malleable, exciting and open to opportunity. Whereas old age is seen as stale, stuck in our ways. What if we adopted a youthful, open, curious mind in business?
Of course, if you’re within a culture of hierarchical learning in your company or industry, this may not feel so easy. It might even feel risky.
So how could companies themselves encourage and create a safe environment for networked learning? A few ideas:
- Modelling behaviour from the top – what if the MD asked a group of executives for their help on a challenge he / she was facing? What if your manager told you they were stuck on something and would love to share it with you to see if you had any ideas? What if you asked for help from a peer you’re normally in (invisible, healthy) competition with? I think this is really powerful – it uses people in position of power to demonstrate that hey, it’s ok to ask for help.
- Cultivate a culture of celebrating failure - we’ve talked a lot about the benefits of celebrating failure at NM, I think that cultivating a culture of this is naturally going to create the safety needed for people to ask questions and ask for help.
- Create channels for the barriers to break down – eating together, away days, lunches, communication sessions. Basically spaces that your employees can connect more deeply, on a human level.
- Encourage humility – no one person can possibly have all of the answers, or a failsafe memory, and we’re all learning all of the time. As you progress in an organisation or career, try not to feel responsible for having all the answers, rather that you’re responsible for having the questions!
- Social technologies can help and provide the pipes, but ultimately if the behaviour isn’t changed then they become worthless. Think of all those dusty exercise bikes in people’s spare rooms!
You sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire. You sell your ignorance, you have an unlimited repertoire.
- Charles Eames