What Context Struggles to Create Space for Learning? The Workplace

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

brick wall

I want to share with you an excerpt from Decoding Greatness by Ron Friedman that I found incredibly powerful. He writes:

Growth requires strain. A moderate degree of difficulty is essential to both mental and physical development.

Teachers know it. Bodybuilders know it. Athletes know it.

Yet what’s the one place where stretching our limits and experimenting with new techniques is most challenging? The workplace. Paradoxically, the one domain in which skill building is arguably most essential is the same domain in which learning is also hardest to achieve.

Why is learning at work so hard?

  1. For one thing, it’s because the cost of workplace failure tends to be substantial. Most managers show little tolerance for mistakes, no matter how well intentioned, and penalize those who make them. Unlike the fields of sports, music, and education, where there exists a profound appreciation that learning occurs through experimentation and feedback, the world of work is consumed with instant, reliable results.

When it comes to failure, the workplace is unforgiving. Every day is game day. There are no opportunities for practice.

  1. A second reason skill-building at work is difficult is that the opportunities for taking risks are surprisingly limited. Businesses, after all, are optimized for efficiency, not employee growth. One way organizations achieve efficiency is by requiring their employees to perform the same task again and again. The more often employees repeat tasks, the faster they get and the more efficient the organization becomes.

While efficiency has its advantages, facilitating learning is not one… We don’t learn through simple repetition. We learn by attempting something difficult that lies just outside our comfort zone, observing the outcome, and making adjustments. That’s how learning happens. And when we are denied the opportunity to take intelligent risks, the chances of our acquiring new skills shrinks.

  1. Then there’s a third barrier: even if we do somehow manage to endure the possibility of failure and identify and intelligent risk worth taking, there’s still one other crucial impediment to learning in the workplace: the absence of consistent detailed, and immediate feedback…

[This] is why, no matter how committed organizational leaders might be to the idea of helping employees grow, the realities of the modern workplace make it remarkably difficult for them to do so.

There is something deeply ironic about the fact that risk taking and feedback are so hard to come by in the workplace. After all, successful organizations take on enormous risks and adapt to market feedback all the time. The best companies don’t play it safe… They are constantly working to grow by taking on new challenges. They gamble on new products, enter untested new markets, and invest in research and development without any guarantee of a return. They take these risks because they know that doing so is the only reliable path to thriving in business.

My Experience Working with Executive Teams

I have had the privilege of working with dozens of executive teams. Whenever I work with these teams, I have them take my mindset assessment.

Across all of the executive teams I have worked with, there has been one consistent finding: The mindset that they struggle with most is a Fixed Mindset.

To me, this explains the quote above. Specifically, I believe a primary reason why it is so difficult for employees to learn in an organization is because they are commonly being led by fixed-mindset leaders. It is the fixed mindset of leaders that causes them to not create space for failure, risk-taking, and feedback giving.

brick wall

What I am learning is that most executives have a very narrow window of tolerance for failure and looking bad, and it is this narrow of tolerance that ultimately hinders the learning of employees and the growth of the very organization they are trying to grow.

What executives need is a widening of their window of tolerance for failure and looking bad. This is what vertical development is all about.

If you want to read about the power of having a wide window of tolerance for failure, look no further than Satya Nadella at Microsoft: Microsoft’s CEO Sent an Extraordinary Email to Employees After They Committed and Epic Fail.

Assessing Your Windows of Tolerance

If you want to assess how wide your window of tolerance for failure, being wrong, having problems, and hang-ups to your priorities, take my mindset assessment.

  • If you have a fixed mindset, that means that you have a narrow window of tolerance for failure.
  • If you have a closed mindset, that means that you have a narrow window of tolerance for being wrong.
  • If you have a prevention mindset, that means that you have a narrow window of tolerance for having problems.
  • If you have an inward mindset, that means that you have a narrow window of tolerance for hang-ups to your priorities.

What I have learned is that our areas with narrow windows of tolerance are a form of self-protective and often feel “right.” But, these narrow windows of tolerance generally cause us to operate that has unintended negative consequences for those around us, such as the development of a culture where learning is not able to occur, as the above passage from Decoding Greatness suggests.

Now ask yourself:

  • What are you doing to foster an environment of learning in your workplace?
  • What do you need to change about yourself to foster greater learning in your workplace?
  • Where do you need vertical development and a widening of your window of tolerance?

Subscribe for the latest posts

Sign up for updates

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter to accelerate your vertical development journey. Includes cutting-edge vertical development articles, tips, and resources.

2 Responses

  1. 4. The most often cited reason for a lack of investment in learning and development programs? Most companies do not want to commit the BUDGET to any project where they cannot quantify a return on their investment. It is difficult to persuade leadership that training programs add value and save companies money in the long run.

    1. Well said! It takes a vertically developed leader to see and value the connection between learning/development and long-term value.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join the Newsletter

Subscribe to my weekly newsletter to accelerate your vertical development journey. Includes cutting-edge vertical development articles, tips, and resources.