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Improving People, Improving Organizations January 16, 2012

Posted by Jason in Management.
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If your life includes teaching, coaching, or mentoring (and, I claim that everyone’s does), there are many occasions during which learning “plateaus”.  That is, there will be times when it seems – to the student at least – that upward progress has ceased.  Student pilots study and expect this as part of the learning process.  Instructors are taught to use such times to work on other topics and let the difficult issue temporarily drop in priority.  This is done because the human brain often takes time to assimilate and synthesize the thinking required for complex tasks.  There are biological limitations to our capacity to learn.

But what about the learning environment (i.e., the workplace)?

Funny enough, individuals don’t work in a vacuum within their organizations.  Not only will each person learn and develop at different rates, but the organizational culture will almost assuredly change much more slowly.  Each new bright spot of success brings with it the realization that not everyone is “seeing the light” in the same way.  Like a religion, there will be fanatics and disbelievers.  But within any given organization, the fans will quickly become frustrated and disillusioned if the rest of the group doesn’t catch up.

What’s happening here?  Again, we have our own brains to blame.

We are wired to believe our way is the right way.  When those around us don’t agree, it creates a conflict, called cognitive dissonance.  When working in an environment of change and – ostensibly at least – improvement, this becomes more difficult to handle, since we must now reassess our co-workers as we and they change together.  Who is working with me, and who is against me?

This is the point at which the organizational leadership is critical to both harness the power of those bright spots and to convince everyone else that the change is really the right thing to do.  Without this commitment, those who have improved – by whatever objective measure you choose – will become more frustrated at the lack of progress around them.  At worst, they become so fed up that they leave the organization.  That leaves you, as the leader, with a less and less motivated team and a more toxic environment in which to make any change.

The forthright commitment from all levels of the organization is critical to keeping those “early adopters” of change from disillusionment and to keeping everyone else headed in the same direction at the same time.