Growth Takes Courage. Frame Your Learning Culture


We are always learning, but not always fostering our learning culture.

If you have people, you have a learning culture. By our nature we observe, reflect, and adapt. It is happening all of the time, it is part of how we are wired. Understanding this–harnessing it into an intentional learning culture–is taking it to another level. Highly effective organizations do this.

So we all have some kind of learning culture – what does yours look like? Is it what you want it to be? More importantly, is it the culture you need?

Providing the environment to encourage growth isn’t just sending employees to a classroom. A learning culture encourages new ways of doing things and seeks feedback – good and bad. In this model you must be willing to revisit your assumptions. As a leader in this culture, you must be able to show that you are willing to hear and adopt other ideas.

Change implies risk and openness takes courage. How do you show up?

From Rebellion to Reliability – Setting the Tone

When you hear “This is the way we’ve always done it,” how do you feel?


At some point, we’ve all encountered this. It doesn’t set a tone that we’re open to change, does it?

In Let Your Workers Rebel, Harvard Professor Francesca Gino explores balancing conformity and non conformity, or constructive nonconformity.  Her research shows benefits such as improved performance, confidence, and engagement.

In an example, she shares a discussion with Pixar executives about their onboarding process. New employees are given examples of how the organization learns from mistakes. Not only are their employees encouraged to reflect and question, they are shown through examples on their first day that this is how the company works.

A very different take on tone comes from the concept of high reliability organizations (HROs). This focuses on high risk occupations and environments where it is not ideal to learn by making mistakes, but it is critical to learn from them. In an HRO, employees are equally empowered and expected to raise concerns. One example – an aircraft carrier where the danger of anything lying around can become disastrous when a plane’s engines are running. You can’t afford to have an employee who is afraid to say “Hold on, I can’t find that wrench.”

In that environment, they’ve changed the tone and meaning of “This is the way we’ve always done it.”

Risky Business—Open for New Ideas

“We should all enter every issue with the very real possibility that we might be wrong this time.”– Sean Blanda

You can say you encourage new ideas, but if you don’t show that you can hear them—and when it makes sense, incorporate them—your learning environment just narrowed.

A learning culture encourages different voices at the table.  To do that, we must implicitly acknowledge that we may not know everything.  We need to be able to enter into any given conversation open to the idea that we might have something to learn.  That requires vulnerability.

That’s the thought behind a piece I co-authored with my friend Todd Gregory on giving and receiving feedback for the wildland fire community. This issue is common throughout organizations, and a great piece by featured contributor Rachel White speaks to this more broadly.

If leaving yourself open to feedback from other people doesn’t require courage and vulnerability, then I don’t know what does.

Brené Brown is a researcher based in Texas who has explored these issues in terms of leadership. You may be familiar with her well-viewed TED talk on the power of vulnerability. One of the key points there:

It doesn’t matter whether you talk to people who work in social justice, mental health and abuse and neglect, what we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is — neurobiologically that’s how we’re wired — it’s why we’re here….And shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?…What underpinned this shame…was excruciating vulnerability. This idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.

How Do You Show Up?

A strong learning culture is a culture that fosters connection. Great learning cultures are great examples of mindful leadership, where we listen with open curiosity. When you reinforce the value of your employees’ voices, you are reinforcing the value of learning from one another. When you show the courage of seeking feedback, you model another level of fostering learning.

These day to day practices are the bedrock for an empowered work environment. There’s no telling where you will go with such a strong base.

Dana Skelly is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Brady Smithsund

Great post, Dana! I agree that encouraging new ideas is great, but if you don’t actually listen to them, they can be meaningless. Thanks for the post!

Steph Drahozal

The saying “This is the way we’ve always done it” is one of my biggest pet peeves! I believe that people need to always be open to new ideas, and at least listen to them, even if they decide to rule them out. Change is not always a bad thing, and there is always room for improvement!

Dana Skelly

Couldn’t agree with you more Steph–allowing for that kind of environment makes your work group stronger and build a more thoughtful and responsive future organization. Sometimes when I hear that phrase, what it really sounds like to me is fear–fear of change, fear that you are undermining my position, etc. Framing it that way helps me facilitate past that wall. Thanks for the comment!

Kaitlyn Baker

Love your point about the importance of vulnerability. It’s difficult, but opening yourself up in that way and creating a space for others to be vulnerable too is so critical in building relationships with coworkers and peers and ultimately facilitating a productive learning culture.

Dana Skelly

You’re spot on, it is difficult but critical and critical to relationships. I’ve come to understand that inclusiveness and vulnerability are intrinsically tied together. For example, I work in a male-dominated field that on the surface appears to value stoicism, but only on the surface. The leading stoic philosophers all valued self-reflection. The surface view values a strong facade which would never allow vulnerability. Maturing past that simplistic version not only brings our individuals to a higher level but allows for an organization that is able to hear a wider range of voices. In our current fire environment, where every season we are faced with unprecedented events, diversity of thought is essential. Thank you Kaitlyn for the comment!

Amy DeWolf

Thanks for sharing! It can be SO easy to say “This is the way we’ve always done it” especially when you’ve worked at a place for a long time. New ideas, and not getting stuck with the “old way” is so important.

Dana Skelly

Thank you, Amy! And people want to feel that they can contribute–be part of something bigger than themselves. Saying “This is the way we’ve always done it” is a quick way to shut folks down, which only hurts the organization’s ability to build for the future.