Behavior for Learning

Behavior for Learning:

Vigorous learning is collective learning by an active working organization. It can extend to big external networks. Individual learning is valuable, of course, but collective learning implies sharing what we learn that is relevant to our mission and its challenges. Vigorous learning is learning to do differently — perhaps very differently — and one person cannot change everyone else alone. 

Thus behavior for learning opens the worm cans of organizational culture, the murky basis for “how we do things around here.” Culture is influenced by everything, but notably environment (both natural and human system ecologies), history, reward systems, and leadership behavior. Changing an old organization’s culture may be like restructuring noodles, and it is slow, but it has been done. 

To many, it is almost hopeless to rouse a big, old business culture to tackle something as different as going from Compression to Regeneration. Instead, forget reform; become entrepreneurial. Create something totally new that can be dedicated to a regenerative mission. 

So what behavior encourages collective learning? For starters, just develop people to work in collaborative teams, common in many businesses today. Many people have been through forming, storming, and norming. But for vigorous learning, behavior development goes much deeper than that. Five points are worth emphasis:

1. Learning as a Normal Part of Work: Inevitably, many persons in any work organization must do routine work — perhaps even drudgery — even if they do it with a computer. Don’t let anyone sink into I-just-work-here mode. Speak up if it starts happening to you. Maintain opportunities for everyone to imaginatively contribute to improving a collective program of Continuous Regeneration. 

2. Meeting Rules: Some meetings will make major directional decisions, and some will involve wicked problems. For these, use formal dialog rules. But most operational meetings, if only between two people, are less testy, but bad behavior makes many of these meetings ineffective too. For operational meetings, workers from all areas should devise their own behavioral code. They may take some time doing this, but they will learn by thinking it out from many angles, and then it is theirs. 

Experienced people know the problems common to meetings. People talking at once. Others not paying attention. Blame casting. Personal attacks. Excuse making. Not being on time. Cutting others off. Not giving some an opportunity to speak up. Promoting a hidden agenda. Some bad behavior may be subtle. The code has to make this behavior unacceptable.

The clincher in any meeting code is a recognized call out phrase, like “Is This Meeting Going Below the Belt!” The culprit usually ceases. An enforcement rule needs to be part of the code. 

Even better, meeting rules usually lead to some form of organizational behavioral rules. Once those are down pat, write them on a wall space, and let everyone sign on that space. That’s a public commitment to abiding by the code.

3. Drive Out Fear: This was one of Dr. Deming’s 14 points. Fear is intimidation by autocrats, peers, or by people clustering in cliques that will hardly speak to each other. Racism, sexism, and other isms are factors. 

Fear cannot be totally eliminated, but intimidating behavior can be quelled until no one fears speaking about anything serious and related to the mission. 

The positive side of this is sometimes called “respect for people,” recognizing that we are all flawed humans. Some may not be your favorite party partners, but they are human. Coach respectful behavior — ability to admit error ourselves, and to forgive it in others. It’s that simple, and that difficult. 

4. Mentoring: 

For most of us, behavior for learning – collective learning – is not normal. Neither Mother nor schooling fully prepare us for it. In action, instinct is to revert to form. 

Mentoring may cover everything: technology, procedures, and tacit skills. But once familiar with an organizations procedures and technology, much of it is behavioral feedback. New behavior is learned by doing. 

Mentoring behavior is an acquired skill too. We all need mentoring. We all need feedback at the right time, and the mentor may learn as much as the mentee. 

Mentoring is so beneficial that an organization should regularly hold meetings to coach mentoring, and for people to exchange their experiences with it. 

Once a code of behavior is in place, it becomes a guide for mentoring. Leaders need to become exemplars, and a system of feedback helps reinforce the learning of non-natural behavior. In addition, “ceremonies” may regularly reinforce it, sort of like standing for the national anthem at every ball game. 

5. Dialog Discipline: A few basic rules for dialog are from Bill Isaacs. A synopsis is in four points:

  1. Listen to understand others (especially when you don’t agree).
  2. Respect others as teachers.
  3. Don’t argue or debate.
  4. Voice your perspective. Learn to “listen” to your own thinking.  

These rules run very deep, so there is no bottom to the implications of each point. We all have to learn dialog discipline by practicing it. Once a dialog group has jelled, it may “learn as a group,” not as a set of clashing individuals, but this is ideal. Human instinct to defend, to argue your points, or to feel put down never disappears. You learn to subjugate your instinct to the greater good. 

Dialog discipline cuts through the normal rules in any culture for face saving and cover up. Civility mandates not talking about conflicting biases (money, politics, or religion in a popular adage). But then we are ill equipped to behave when resolution of our difficulties mandates that we must talk about them. 

The heart of dialog, what makes it different, is learning to identify your own biases, assumptions, and mental models. Some may come from somewhere so deep in cultural background that we are unaware of them. Well done, dialog stimulates “self-examination of the soul.” When a group does this, they may break through to possibilities that none of them had imagined. 

Dialog needs to be extended until people realize that they interpret the same words differently, that they have different concepts of how the world works, or ought to work. They have to get past confusing each other with what each thinks are common words and symbols. (What you heard is not what I thought I said.) 

In addition, many actions will affect stakeholders differently — separating them into winners and losers — and the environment is a frequent loser. Who speaks for it, and in what context, and with what assumptions? In any case, can we come out with a win/win? 

One of the best insights into dialog is from Edgar Schein, who emphasizes long experience with it. To summarize it, everybody learns well together when they become able to effectively learn about themselves.