Behavior for Learning

Behavior for Learning:

Developing behavior for learning is essential for a Vigorous Learning Organization. Behavioral changes add up to culture change. Learning a new behavior is learning new habits over time. Exhortations to “be ethical” seldom penetrate as deeply. New methods of learning and interacting are also practice exercises in behavior. We change how we behave by practicing how to behave differently. Rigorous systems, above, suggest several such exercises, and we can probably make up some of our own.

Collaborative Discipline for Flexibility

The long-term objective is an organization so collaborative working out internal conflicts that they quickly resolve tough issues as a team. This creates flexible organizations, organic and adaptable rather than 20th century command-and-control hierarchies. A vigorous learning system will become the discipline making a flexible organization together. To stick, the system itself has to reinforce behavior that melds the imaginative potential of diverse ideas into actionable form.

A place to start is rules for meetings. Most companies have them. They can usually be improved to keep participants from finger pointing, promoting self-serving agendas, drifting off subject, and generally attacking people instead of problems. Rules are better accepted if working people devise them themselves, once they understand what is wanted and why. See the heading on meeting rules below.

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 whatever we learn relevant to our mission and challenges. Vigorous learning is learning to do differently — perhaps very differently.

How Do We Start?

So what behavior encourages collective learning? If it hasn’t been done, start developing 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. Five points are worth emphasis:

  1. Learning as a Normal Part of Work: Inevitably, many persons in any work organization 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 this is happening to you. Maintain opportunities for everyone to imaginatively contribute to improving a collective program of Continuous Regeneration.
  2. Meeting Rules: Many meetings are operational and routine; use base level meeting rules. If only between two people, rules make meetings less testy. Other meetings make major directional decisions. Some wrestle wicked problems. For these, use formal dialog rules. But 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 through from many angles, and then the rules are theirs.

Experienced people know the problems common to meetings. People talking over each other. Others bored or distracted. Blame casting. Personal attacks. Excuse making. Not being on time. Not giving some an opportunity to speak up. Promoting a hidden agenda. Some bad behavior may be subtle, like a hidden agenda. 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, sometimes called an ethics code. Once those are down pat, write them on a wall space, and let everyone sign that space; it signifies a personal commitment to abide by the ethics code. Otherwise it’s another paper on the wall.

  1. Drive Out Fear: This was one of Dr. Deming’s 14 points. Fear is intimidation by bosses, autocrats, peers, or by opinionated people that can hardly speak to each other. Racism, sexism, and other much-publicized isms are also factors.

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

Behavior to do this is sometimes called “respect for people,” recognizing that we are all flawed humans. We have lapses and make mistakes. Some people may not be your favorite party partners, but they are human. Coach respect for people by listening to understand them, admitting our own lapses, and forgiving their minor lapses. It’s that simple, and that difficult.

  1. Mentoring:

Behavior for learning – collective learning – is not normal for most of us. Neither our mothers nor our schooling fully prepared us, and our human instinct is to revert to form. Once really into it, mentoring may help.

Mentoring may cover anything: technology, procedures, processes, and tacit skills. But once familiar with an organizations’ procedures and technology, much of it is behavioral feedback, done as close to the time and spot as possible – and tactfully.

Behavior to mentor is an acquired skill too. So is behavior to accept mentoring. We all need feedback at the right time, and mentors may learn as much as mentees.

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 (or ethics) is in place, it becomes a guide for mentoring. Some organizations hold that behavioral codes should not be posted, but imparted, little at a time by mentoring. Either way, leaders need to become exemplars, and create a system of feedback to reinforce the learning of non-natural behavior. In addition, “ceremonies” may periodically reinforce a code of behavior, sort of like standing for the national anthem at every ball game, symbolizing “this is who we are.”

  1. 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. 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.

The Value of Dialog

Dialog discipline cuts through the normal rules in any culture to avoid blame or conflict – or to sneakily get our way. Civility is maintained only by not talking about conflicting biases (money, politics, or religion). But if we don’t, we can’t resolve such conflicts when resolution of serious difficulties mandates that we must talk about them. Edgar Schein, who has long experience with dialog, says that everybody learns well together only after each one becomes able to effectively examine their own deep beliefs.

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 circumvent 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 affect stakeholders differently, separating them into winners and losers. The environment is a frequent loser. Who speaks for it, in what context, and with what assumptions? How can our decisions become a win/win with the environment?

To effectively deal with Compression, all of us have to deeply examine our beliefs that support unlimited expansion of consumption and its associated problems. To dive into that deep water see the Guide to Compression Thinking (in revision).

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