A study by Deloitte found that companies with strong learning cultures were 92% more likely to innovate, 56% more likely to be first to market, and be 17% more profitable than their counterparts. Another study by the Association for Talent Development found that top-performing organizations are five times more likely to have a culture of learning than lower-performing ones.
The Corporate Executive Board defines a learning culture as one “that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization.” A learning culture goes far beyond the workshops and training programs hosted by the learning team.
The real culture of learning lives in the beliefs and attitudes of its people— specifically around two key questions: How do we help people learn, grow, and improve? And, perhaps more importantly, what do we do when people make a mistake or fail?
Learning and failing are inextricably linked. You cannot have learning and improvement if you do not also have a culture that is safe for taking risks and making mistakes.
Here are 3 strategies for building a culture of continuous improvement.
Create Psychological Safety
Harvard’s Dr. Amy Edmondson discovered psychological safety and her research showed that it’s what creates the climate for people and teams to do their best work. She defines psychological safety as, “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”
A global study by Google found that psychological safety was the key differentiator for its highest performing teams.
The success of the group and the larger organization often depend on people’s ability to speak up, noting potential threats to the organization’s success.
In fact, in Edmondson’s study, the highest-performing teams also had the highest reporting rates for errors. This might seem paradoxical but it’s actually the sign of a very healthy team. When people feel safe enough to mention their errors it means they are also holding themselves accountable, and the whole group benefits from learning from the experience. In addition, when errors are acknowledged, they can be addressed and fixed, rather than ignored to fester into bigger problems later.
Yet, the reality is that many people stay quiet for fear of being embarrassed, rejected, or punished. One study by VitalSmarts found that about half of employees don’t regularly speak their minds at work, whether to colleagues or managers. And only 1% of employees feel “extremely confident” when it comes to voicing their concerns in the workplace at critical moments. Furthermore, a third of employees say their organizations do not promote or support holding crucial conversations, something that can cost thousands of dollars in the long run.
You cannot have a culture of continuous improvement without first creating psychological safety. This is the responsibility of leaders and managers so should be a major part of your leadership development programs.
Cultivate a growth mindset
While people’s brains are wired to learn and grow, there are many things we can do to accelerate and maximize this process. The first is to cultivate a growth mindset in your people and teams. Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck’s research found that people who don’t succeed tend to have a fixed mindset, meaning that they believe that their inherent traits or characteristics—such as their IQ (intelligence quotient) or people skills—are set once they reach adulthood. Whereas people with a growth mindset believe that they can always get better, that they can always learn something new, or practice something more, and that studying and effort are the pathways to improvement and even mastery.
You can certainly hire people with a growth mindset but you can also train your managers in how to cultivate a growth mindset in their people.
Their focus should be on recognizing effort and progress, not just traits or outcomes. When we recognize and reward effort and progress, we build an organization where people are motivated to challenge themselves and do the work of getting better.
Provide practice with coaching
Getting better at something takes practice—it’s how we build those neural pathways and turn behaviors into habits, making it a vital part of the learning process.
The challenge is that people are busy. Work is so fast-paced these days, even the most well-meaning learners will struggle to find the time to practice. As a result, it’s imperative that we build practice time into the learning events, to both create that safe space for trying and failing and build those desired behaviors and habits so they can be repeated on the job.
Practice is also the path to mastery. Mastery can take hundreds or thousands of repetitions. In fact, Dr. Anders Ericsson, author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, conducted research on what it takes to develop expertise by studying hundreds of peak performers from a variety of fields. He is the one who coined the idea of the “10,000 hours” needed to master tasks but Ericsson’s research shows that it’s not just putting in hours that creates mastery but rather the right kind of practice. He identified three levels:
- Naive or mindless practice has no specific goals or feedback; it is just blindly trying and hoping.
- Purposeful practice has well-defined goals and clear targets, a plan of small steps to accomplish those goals, internal feedback to know when you’re off track, and constant and maximum effort outside of your current comfort zone.
- Deliberate practice is purposeful practice informed by the guidance of an expert teacher who provides feedback that increasingly leads to the development of internal self-monitoring.
He also found that most of us use purposeful or deliberate practice at the beginning of learning something new but once we hit a sufficient level of skill, we shift into mindless practice, meaning we are repeating the behavior but no longer actually improving.
So, the ideal combination to speed up the road to mastery is practice plus coaching, because feedback allows us to benchmark our skill level and make the necessary adjustments to improve. According to Ericsson, “The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else.”
It’s clear that learning is at the heart of how we reach our fullest potential—as individuals, as organizations, and as societies. The good news is that our biology is set up to help us learn every day. Creating a culture of continuous improvement in your organization is critical to its ongoing success. It helps you not only develop your talent to meet today’s challenges but starts preparing them now for the bold new future that awaits.
Are you interested in joining industry leaders for a masterclass on creating a culture of continous improvement? Register now for People Matters L&D Conference APAC 2022 and reserve your seat for the masterclass from Britt Andreatta and hear more from global experts.