6 Steps for Leaders to Cultivate a Learning Culture

Workplaces should reward curiosity and learning for better results

To thrive, human brains require nourishment in many forms: hydration, nutrition, oxygen, rest and stimulation. Just as push-ups build arm muscles, “effortful learning” is exercise for the brain that stimulates growth and strength of synapses, the connections between brain cells that facilitate higher brain functions like innovation and creativity. Effortful learning requires rigor and focus that challenges the brain at a deeper level. Numerous and strong synaptic connections between various parts of the brain improves overall brain function and health.

Similar to the human brain, an organization’s collective “grey matter” (employees and the synapse-like interactions between them) also requires nourishment and effortful learning to thrive. Without purposeful and strategic stimulation of their “grey matter”, organizations (like brain synapses) are likely to wither and fail. Employers today are challenged by rapidly evolving economic, social, political, global and environmental forces. To remain viable, leaders must identify strategies to evolve organizational capabilities to address these complex forces.

Research indicates that organizations with a vibrant learning culture enjoy a competitive advantage in the marketplace. What defines a “learning culture”? Offering benefits like tuition reimbursement for formal degrees or certifications?  Although valued, these alone do not indicate a learning culture exists. Good news for any employer who cannot afford such expensive benefits, yet seeks the benefits promised by a learning culture.

Organizations thrive with a culture that:

  • Expects and rewards curiosity and learning;
  • Invites and honors diverse perspectives;
  • Conducts frank, respectful and safe conversations;
  • Actively facilitates information sharing between staff and teams; and
  • Commits to accountability for achieving specified objectives.

For workplace cultures that fall short of the mark, new organizational characteristics may be developed with concerted efforts to both stimulate individual employees’ brains and strengthen the “synapses” (communications, interactions, relationships) that bind employees together. These efforts may take many forms: training (individual and team), coaching, facilitated conversations, expert consultation and more.

To cultivate a workplace culture that values and maximizes the benefits of employee learning, leaders must prioritize learning as a strategic business necessity with six action steps:

  1. Model personal development with learning activities, such as reading a variety of topics.
  2. Share thoughts about personal learnings with employees to inspire them to learn.
  3. Ask questions of employees at all levels, listen carefully and engage in meaningful dialog.
  4. Allocate resources to learning initiatives and rewards for those who achieve goals.    
  5. Hold managers accountable to providing learning opportunities for their teams.
  6. Assign someone to develop a strategy to sustain a learning culture.

A learning culture that unleashes employees’ greatest capabilities requires leaders who align and guide this energy to achieve their organization’s full potential.

James McDonough is an HR research consultant for member engagement at Employers Council.

Categories: Management & Leadership