May 4, 2016 karynross

Resistant to Change or Resistant to Learning?

Do you enjoy learning new things?

Lately I’ve been surprised by the number of people who don’t seem to. And how do I know that? By the reaction that they have when they are in situations in which they need to – or are asked to – change.

For example, take the manager that I had a conversation with the other day. “Our customers don’t seem to be sending in as much new business as we expected. Strange thing is, we haven’t had any complaints. And nothing seems to have changed on our end, so we’re having trouble figuring it out. Can you help us come up with some ideas we could try?” As we discussed the problem further, I offered a number of possible suggestions, each of which was met with the same response: “No, I don’t think that would work for us. Nope, not that either.” I even suggested some books and articles that might be helpful. “Not much on reading. No time. Not really useful.” I’d like to say that by the end of the conversation, I’d succeeded in convincing the manager to give anything new a try, but I have to admit I didn’t.

As I reflected on the conversation – and the others like it that I’ve had recently – I started to think about why people find it hard to change even when there is a very obvious problem; and solutions that have worked in past don’t seem to be working anymore. One of the conclusions that I came to is that in order to do things differently – change, in other words – one has to learn something new. If we don’t learn something new, then we will simply keep doing the same old things over and over again – whether they work or not. And we all know Einstein’s famous quote about that: “What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result!”

So, if we want different results: more new business coming in or increases in client satisfaction and retention, then we’re going to have to change what we are doing. And the only way to do that is to learn. Learn how to think about – and do things – in new and different ways. Ways we didn’t know before. So in my opinion, if we don’t like or want to learn, change is going to be very difficult, in fact, pretty much downright impossible.

As I thought more about this, I started to wonder why many adults don’t enjoy learning. Children don’t seem to have that problem. They love to learn. Think about how proud and excited they are when they’ve mastered a new skill: walking, throwing a ball, tying their shoes, for example. Learning new things, changing and growing, brings them great joy.

So why doesn’t that seem to be the same for adults?

In my experience, in many organizations, there is a great emphasis on ‘knowing’. People, (especially managers) feel that they are valued – and are valuable – as employees, because of what they ‘know’. ‘Knowing’ what to do in tricky situations, ‘knowing’ how to use complicated computer systems, and ‘knowing’ the answers to customers’ problems, for example. People are compensated, rewarded and promoted for ‘knowing’. ‘Knowing’ feels safe and comfortable and good.

To many people, I believe, having to learn something means that they don’t know. After all, if they knew how to do something, like use that new computer workload management system, or get customers to send in more new business, then they wouldn’t have to learn how to do it would they? For many people, ‘not knowing’ is a very uncomfortable feeling. Uncomfortable and scary. After all, if our organizations pay us and promote us for ‘knowing’, what is going to happen when someone sees that we don’t? If we are valued and valuable because of what we ‘know’, what happens to our value if we ‘don’t know’.

Not sure if this is what is happening in your organization? Try asking these questions?

  • What value does our company put on ‘knowing’? Are people primarily praised, rewarded and promoted for ‘knowing’ answers and ‘knowing’ how to do things? If so, then they might be very unwilling to ‘show’ that they don’t know – and that will prevent them from learning.
  • Does our company encourage people to ask questions? What happens if someone says they don’t know? How comfortable are people asking questions or asking for help when they are unsure of how to do something? If people aren’t able to ‘show’ that they don’t know by asking questions or asking for help, then they won’t even get the opportunity to learn at all!
  • How do people react to the words ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’? What happens if you ask people to read an article or book? Do they complain or roll their eyes? Or grumble under their breath? Happens more frequently than you might think. But unless we have new ideas coming in from somewhere – then we aren’t going to learn and we’re going to keep doing the same things over and over again.

No one can know everything. The world we live in is constantly changing, and changing quickly. Customer needs are constantly changing too. What was once ‘a nice to have’ is now an absolute requirement: electrical outlets at every seat on the airplane. In order to solve problems for our customers and for our business, we’re going to need to change the way we do things. Times change, customers change, and we need to change as well. And, as I said before, the only way to do that is to learn, no matter how uncomfortable or scary it seems.

So, next time you have a conversation with one of your employees like I had with the manager mentioned earlier, or if your organization seems ‘resistant to change’ take a look at people’s underlying feelings towards learning. You may not have a ‘change-management’ issue, you may really have a ‘learning’ issue.

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