Creating a Learning Culture
As leaders, God entrusts us to build flourishing organizations through flourishing people. The idea of “flourishing” suggests continuous and intentional learning, growth, and change. In addition, learning requires effective communication. As the ancient proverb states, “Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance.” (Prov. 1:5)
Creating an organizational culture that supports and encourages constant learning is not just a trendy feel good statement for the 21st century. It is an absolute strategic priority. In fact, learning organizations report employee engagement and retention rates 30-50% higher than other organizations. Imagine the annual impact on your organization’s bottom line as you refine your communication practices to create a learning culture. It will dramatically increase engagement, retention rates, and results.
Communication is at the heart of almost every aspect of creating learning organizations.
Communication is at the heart of almost every aspect of creating learning organizations. Below are four key communication practices that directly contribute to creating a learning culture.
- Start at the Top
- Align and Clarify Priorities
- Provide Opportunities for Input
- Create Rhythms of Follow-Up
Start at the Top
Organizations that successfully create and maintain a learning culture have leaders who go out of their way to model and humbly communicate how they themselves continue to learn. You likely already know that successful leaders are lifelong learners. However, if your staff aren’t aware of what you’re learning or how you incorporate learning practices into your life, they aren’t likely to incorporate those same learning practices into their lives.
Often, employees view learning and development plans, coaching programs, and other teaching workshops and courses as existing to address people’s weaknesses or failures. Thus, staff might think it is embarrassing or shaming to be asked to be a part of them. This may be the strongest reason for senior leaders to be active participants in organizational learning programs. It breaks down the perception that learning and development is only meant for people with performance problems. Instead, as leaders you want your staff to see training and development activities as a valued benefit. You want them to embrace them as opportunities that help people to grow and thrive.
If your organization uses 360 degree leadership assessments and/or provides leadership coaching as a developmental tool, make sure your most senior leaders are the first to go through them. It sends a clear message to your staff about your focus and priority on learning and development. The bottom line is that if you expect your employees to be life-long learners, you must first set the example. Be a life-long learner yourself and communicate about your learning frequently.
Align and Clarify Priorities
A definition of leadership I commonly use is “unifying a group of diverse people to work effectively together toward a common purpose.” Leaders must focus on learning that is done for a clear purpose and that is in alignment with the needs and goals of the organization. Learning simply for learning’s sake is not strategic, and it will not necessarily help move an organization forward.
How do you ensure that your organization’s learning initiatives are aligned with your organizational priorities? Start by being clear about the goals and priorities of your organization. How clearly have you defined them and how frequently have you communicated them to your staff? Once that is clear, consider how each department, team, and individual should uniquely contribute to the priorities of the organization.
Lastly, how well has your communication with your staff linked their unique performance and competency expectations to their specific learning goals and priorities?
Provide Opportunities for Input
Once your staff members have been clearly told what is expected of them, they then need to receive feedback about how well they are meeting those expectations. Annual reviews are a common way of providing feedback to staff. However, annual feedback alone is not frequent enough. It also often provides feedback only from the perspective of a person’s supervisor.
If you really want a person to know how their performance affects and impacts their team, you need to add more voices into the feedback process. You want to give your staff opportunities to give and receive feedback from each other. The more often they receive timely feedback, the more valuable that feedback is in the learning process. Providing “Input Opportunities” means giving space and opportunities for people to give and receive feedback. It is helpful to provide your staff with a wide variety of feedback opportunities. Holding quarterly performance conversations is one great way to give helpful feedback more frequently throughout the year.
Best Christian Workplaces Recommendation
At Best Christian Workplaces, we highly recommend that supervisors hold weekly or bi-weekly one-on-one check-ins with each staff member. Check-ins typically take 30 minutes or less and give the employee and supervisor a chance to talk about any recent challenges, problems, or opportunities. The supervisor can give the employee helpful feedback about their performance – both encouragement and needed corrections. Further, the supervisor can use it as an opportunity to let the employee give feedback to the supervisor.
To create a learning culture effectively, Best Christian Workplaces also recommends giving opportunities for team members to give feedback to one another. You can do this annually through 360-degree leadership assessments. You can also do this informally throughout the year by setting aside time in your team meetings to give and receive feedback. It can be as simple as giving each team member a postcard with their name on it. Then, spend fifteen minutes passing the cards around so others can write down ideas, suggestions, and encouragement for each person related to their learning goals and contributions as a team member.
Create Rhythms of Follow-Up
Meaningful learning should result in changed behavior.
Meaningful learning should result in changed behavior. According to Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s leading executive coaches, the number one factor that determines if a person will successfully achieve a change in behavior is “follow-up.” His research shows that 95% of leaders who follow up frequently with their co-workers about their learning goals achieve measurable improvement. Equally interesting, Marshall’s research shows that people who do not follow up with their co-workers do not achieve measurable change. Thus, if you want to see change in your employees’ behaviors because of any learning activities you offer, you absolutely must create rhythms of follow-up. Frequent follow-up is what helps turn new knowledge into new behaviors, which results in change.
One simple way to create a rhythm of follow-up is to start by ensuring every staff member always has at least one learning goal for him/herself. It could be a new skill or a new behavior.
Create a rhythm in monthly team meetings by allowing everyone a chance to give each other feedback and what Marshall calls “Feedforward.” It only takes about fifteen minutes, and it involves everyone asking each other two questions:
- Feedback: “I’m trying to get better at XYZ. In the last month do you feel I got better, worse, or stayed the same?”
- Feedforward: “For the month ahead, could you give me one or two more ideas of how I could continue to get better at XYZ?”
This monthly rhythm of feedback and feedforward is extremely effective and powerful for supporting ongoing learning, growth, and change in individuals. It also has the effect of fostering a healthy culture of learning and growth that benefits your people. To that end, BCWI offers and recommends, “team coaching.”
Creating a learning culture indeed relies strongly on creating healthy communication practices within your organization. It begins with the top leaders talking about their own ongoing learning efforts. It is followed by clarifying the learning priorities for each staff member in alignment with organizational needs. And it is supported by offering ongoing opportunities for giving and receiving input, and by creating rhythms of follow-up, learning, and change.
Jay Bransford is the President and CEO of Best Christian Workplaces Institute (BCWI). He is a consultant of 30 years who is passionate about equipping and inspiring Christian leaders to create engaged, flourishing workplaces. He has a bachelor’s in Economics from Vanderbilt University and a master’s in Organizational Leadership from Azusa Pacific University.
Jay Bransford is teaching a workshop “Creating a Learning Culture,” and co-teaching another workshop “Flourishing CEO Succession: Case Study” at The Outcomes Conference 2023 in Chicago, March 28-30. >> Register to Attend
Hear Jay Bransford on Best Christian Workplaces Institute’s “The Flourishing Culture Podcast” – LISTEN