Thursday Thoughts: Learning Disabilities

I am a graduate student at George Washington University and I am fortunate enough to be taking a leadership class with a former high-level government official. My professor has served at the highest levels of government, and provides a first hand account how to lead large, complex and bureaucratic government agencies. Every Thursday I’ll post some thoughts on previous lectures that intrigued me, hopefully they do the same for you.

Learning Disabilities

Throughout our careers we will encounter infinitely different situations. How we react from these situations will guide us in how we will learn and grow. However, there are some “learning disabilities” that impair our ability to actively learn and better ourselves and our organizations. There are 7 different learning disabilities that I will highlight here and ask you to reflect on. If you’ve ever encountered these situations how did you overcome them?

  1. “I Am My Position” – People fail to recognize their purpose as a part of the enterprise. Instead, they see themselves as an inconsequential part of a system over which they have little influence leading them to limit themselves to the jobs they must perform at their own positions.
  2. “The Enemy Out There” – Everyone has a propensity to find someone or something outside ourselves to blame when things go wrong. This disability makes it almost impossible to detect the leverage we have on problems that straddle the boundary between us and “out there.”
  3. The illusion of Taking Charge – All too often, proactiveness is reactiveness in disguise. Whether in business or politics, if we simply become more aggressive fighting the “enemy out there,” we are reacting – regardless of what we call it. True proactiveness comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems. It is a product of our way of thinking, not our emotional state.
  4. The Fixation on Events – Focusing on events distracts us from seeing the longer-term patterns of change that lie behind the event and from understanding the cause of those patterns. The tendency to see things as results of short-term events undermines our ability to see things on a grander scale. Cavemen needed to react to events quickly for survival but the biggest threats we face today are rarely sudden events, but slow, gradual processes.
  5. The Parable of the Boiling Frog – Consider setting a frog into a pot of water and slowly heating it up to boiling, the frog will sit there and die due to the heat. Now imagine if the water is boiling then you throw the frog in, it will immediately jump out. We are adept at responding to sudden changes in our environment. We are terrible at assessing slow, gradual changes, even when they threaten our survival.
  6. The Delusion of Learning From Experience – Many times we think that practice makes perfect, when in fact it may be making permanent. Experience is good (and necessary) but you need to learn about your experience not just implant permanent ways of doing things.
  7. The Myth of the Management Team – The mantra that “management is right” is a big problem, just as bad as thinking that you “have my own decision” and failing to act upon that. Management shouldn’t distance itself from the rest of the organization too much, as the gap will result in less collaboration and diversity of thought.

Have you experienced any of these “learning disabilities” in your agency? How have you overcome them?

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Andrew Krzmarzick

My hunch is that most organizations see all of these learning impediments in one form or another, and are constantly tweaking systems and communications to avert / adapt to the consequences.

Kevin Lanahan

I agree with Andrew. The question is “Which one are you today?” An organization will not overcome these; they’ll just morph into another.

Brenda K. Moore

My hunch is that most Individuals will possess several of these ‘learning disabilities’ at one time or another within any one organization. Learning to recognize yourself when you are displaying any of these will help.

Alison Whyte

I don’t think it is appropriate to call these 7 situations learning disabilities. Learning disabilities are things like dyslexia, aphasia, sensory processing disorder, etc. These 7 situations are certainly challenges that we experience in a working environment, but let’s not confuse that with actual disabilities that people live with. These 7 situations are a result of people’s choices of how to behave and sometimes of character flaws. Learning disabilities are not a choice, nor should they be seen as a problem with someone’s personality.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Hey Alison – As a follow-up to my newsletter reference today, I actually like how this post reframes the notion of disability. While the text books (I used to be a psychology major and a research assistant to a school psychologist, so very familiar with the DSM) have specific categories – and we ought to heed them and assist people with those specific diagnoses – it’s a bit startling for someone who thinks they’re “normal” to hear that the above behaviors might actually be for them a form of mental / developmental disability. If someone exhibits those behaviors consistently in the office, it will likely slow their professional growth…and therefore is by definition a huge impediment in their life advancement!

Bryce Bender

Alison – I certainly did not mean the term “learning disabilities” to be taken as a typical learning disability or developmental disorder that you speak of, obviously those are not choices or problems with someone’s personality.

All I’m expressing here is that there are situations and ways of thinking that impede people’s use of learning to advance their organization. Instead of actively learning about ourselves and how we deal with situations many people succumb to the normalities of life and don’t consider how these “learning disabilities” do just that – disable learning through life.

Alison Whyte

I know there was no harm or offense meant by using the term learning disabilities. I think the article is great and points out some very real problems with productivity in the work environment. I just don’t think we should say they are learning disabilities. I view disability as another type of identity, just like being gay or being a woman. The way this article is written reinforces the idea that disability is a problem that needs to be fixed. It is not. Disability is what it is and many people are proud of their disability. As a society, we need to re-frame the idea that disability means something is wrong and the use of the words learning disability in this article go against that idea. That is what I take issue with.

Steven Cruz

These are in fact referred to as learning disabilities in the literature of organizational management and learning because they are an impediment on the cohesive development and growth of the organization. I think the “I am my position” disability is an indictment on the bureaucratic nature of government and we commonly see and complain about the lack of innovation that comes from situations where this occurs. This is a very good overview of the challenges of organizational development and as we’re all aware the first step to correcting any problems is recognizing there is one, so this is extremely useful for people looking to develop some self-awareness about the pitfalls of of organizational learning.

Alison Whyte

Well then, I think the literature of organizational management and learning should be changed. Pitfalls of organizational learning are not learning disabilities, they are just pitalls. I hope that someday we can all get to a place where we respect people with all kinds of disabilities as people and stop trying to co-opt their diagnoses to use for our own purposes of explaining dysfunctional environments.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Alison said: “I hope that someday we can all get to a place where we respect people with all kinds of disabilities as people and stop trying to co-opt their diagnoses to use for our own purposes of explaining dysfunctional environments.”

I would agree with you on this point: respecting people with all kinds of disabilities…and recognizing that means you, me and the people sitting to our left and right. We’ve all got issues. Begin with that assumption and I think we can get over some of the arrogance and facades that typify the workplace! That’s why at GovLoop we start with this phrase: “Assume the best.” – which I think implicitly acknowledges that people are intending to do good work, but fall short as life is happening…and because none of us performs perfectly all the time.


awesome post. These ways of thinking can definitely ‘disable learning’, esp. the ‘i am my position’ one. Great stuff!

Ann McFarlane

Actually, I am offended by calling these “Learning Disabilities”. That is a term of art to reference actual medical disabilities. They may be “Learning Impediments” .. call them that. I have worked with many people who have worked very hard to adjust to dyslexia, ADD, etc., and to include behavior that can be changed by “thinking” into Learning Disabilities is an insult to those that have to live with it.

Andrew Krzmarzick

From Merriam-Webster: one definition of disability is a “limitation in the ability to pursue an occupation because of a physical or mental impairment.”

Do the conditions listed above serve as a mental impairment that limits a person’s ability to advance in their occupation? My answer would probably be “yes.”

Again, please note that my goal here is not to minimize the irreparable disabilities that people experience, but to equalize the playing field so that we act more humbly with one another and achieve more effective functioning in the office.

Carol Kruse

I hope we can all get past the fact that there are both attitudinal and physiological disabilities (dysfunctional attitudes and mindsets can disable our ability to learn, just as can dysfunctional physiological characteristics) and move to the intent and content of this blog.

The Parable of the Frog and The Delusion of Learning from Experience struck me hardest — The Parable because I don’t tend to see gradual change and need to be more alert to recognizing and assessing those slow changes; and The Delusion because I see that nearly every day in my job. The rigidity and constriction that can follow Learning by Experience inhibit the flexibility and innovation I believe we need, to better serve the public.

Frozen in Place by Fear of Litigation might be another learning disability. Fear of innovating or implementing a collaborative solution due to fear of appeal or litigation also greatly inhibits flexibility and innovation.

Thank you for these thought-provoking self-assessment tools!