原文作者：Gianpiero Petriglieri 翻译：蒋齐仕
Learning Is the Most Celebrated Neglected Activity in the Workplace
When I am invited to “teach leadership” to managers in corporations, I use the first few minutes to address the issue of where and how one learns to lead—and what gets in the way. I usually begin with a confession and a question.
My confession is always the same. That I am hoping to learn something from our encounter, brief as it may be, that I will remember and use. This is what I believe good leaders and good teachers have in common—the commitment to keep learning as they practice.
I have never met a manager who disagrees. Good leaders, they tell me, like good teachers, raise tough questions and make others feel stretched, empowered, inspired. Mediocre ones issue commands and make others feel overlooked, bored, underutilized.
My question is different every time. It usually has to do with some aspect of leading that people in the room will have divergent views about. Is honesty necessary to lead, or just desirable? Or: What makes a responsible follower.
Raising a controversial question is not an unusual way to begin a presentation. It energizes the audience. But keep the debate going for more than a few minutes, and regardless of how informative it is, restlessness begins to set in. There’s inevitably a challenge like, “We are spending precious time here, you are getting paid for yours, and we are no closer to a clear answer.”
I have come to wait, if with some trepidation, for such remarks.
I am a professor. Learning is, broadly speaking, my job. And yet no matter how enthusiastically we agree that good teachers and good leaders are perpetual learners, and that being offered a difficult question is empowering, it does not take long before I am reminded that I am not supposed to keep questioning and learning—not so publicly at least—on the company’s dime.
I am supposed to deliver.
The reminder is hardly surprising but how quickly it comes is revealing. It is a great illustration of a contradiction that affects most managers every day: learning is the most celebrated neglected activity in the workplace.
Everyone says that learning is essential for companies’ success—and for your own. And yet, on a daily basis, who cares for your learning? No one. People care about what you have learned. They care about your results. Learning is great as long as you do it quietly, in your own time.
This is only fair, you may say. In business, after all, delivering is what counts. Learning matters to the extent that it helps one deliver and does not get in the way.
But learning does get in the way of delivering. Especially learning of the transformational kind—that makes us tentative, confused, and ineffective for a while. And we do not neglect it just because we lack time.
Consider the popular 70:20:10 “formula” stating that 70% of learning happens on the job, 20% through coaching and mentoring, and 10% takes place in classrooms.
While little empirical evidence supports it—the scholar to whom the formula is often attributed recently described it as “folklore”—plenty of organizations invoke it as a cornerstone of their learning strategies.
The reason we have turned folklore into a formula, I believe, is because it resonates with the safest, most efficient kind of learning—the incremental kind. We acquire an idea and we practice it with some feedback on the way. That eventually results in mastery. That kind of learning is additive—and addictive.
Transformational learning rarely builds up so smoothly. It does not just make us more knowledgeable. It reveals what mastery prevents us from knowing. It does not just refine our skills. It changes our perspective. And it is not just a matter of time.
A class, a reading, a difficult conversation with a colleague, may take 1% of our time. And yet they may radically alter how we approach the other 99%, raising questions that jolt us into learning new things from everyday experiences. A challenging assignment, conversely, may take most of our time and yield little new insights.
Take your job’s design. Does it leave space for you to process your experiences and draw a few conclusions or imagine alternatives? Do you have access to people who see the world from another perspective—or just to good old feedback? How often does your team have open conversations about your work together?
And outside of work, are you getting enough sleep, time off your smartphone, idle breaks, walks, exercise, and all those other things known to make you more productive and imaginative—let alone live a more decent existence?
The question then is not whether we have time for learning, at work or elsewhere. It is what kind of learning we are encouraged, and have the courage, to pursue.
We seldom visit the periphery of our knowledge and competence—the region where transformational learning happens—without feeling threatened, exposed, or ashamed. (That is why when we meet a friendly, forgiving face out there—which makes learning easier—we cherish it. We call that a mentor.) People like failure only in inspirational speeches. In real life we endure it, at best, and come to value it only if and when its lessons become clear. Workplace pressures and norms just turn our instinct to steer clear of failure into a habit.
Look past the rhetoric and you will find signs of the neglect of transformational learning everywhere. In the workplace as well as in many business school courses, with their emphasis on tools that can be taught in a weekend and applied on Monday morning. The learning that we privilege is the safer, incremental kind. Learning that makes us better at what we do but hardly frees us up to revisit why we do it that way or what, say, we may want to do next.
No wonder innovation lags, personal change eludes us despite our best intentions, and we hesitate to make the moves that would most help us lead.
This is most true for those managers whose work is so fast and visible that the pressure to keep up and prove oneself all but overwhelms the aspiration to step back and reflect. Their stifling predicament, however, is hardly a misfortune.
Like a professor reminded to deliver rather too quickly, they are in a position that requires them to keep learning and makes it harder at the same time.
Contradictory as they may be, those are the very circumstances that, throughout history, have forged many a leader. Few may be able to keep learning despite the pull not to. But those who do become the kind of leaders who, because they care for learning, don’t just attract dependent followers. They develop other leaders.
In that predicament lies, in short, the most valuable learning opportunity of all: the opportunity to recognize that transformational learning always involves defiance—of complacency, conformity, and norms. As such, it takes courage, not just time. And courage, in turn, is easier to muster and sustain with some support. Surely organizations could make it a bit easier. But it will never feel entirely safe.
In the end, good leaders are seldom spoon-fed. They are usually tempered. They pursue causes and questions that matter — even when it feels risky and no one else seems to care. When learning is too easy, it doesn’t teach us to lead.