First unlearn. Then learn.

Companies now-a-days strive to build thriving learning cultures. The emphasis for employees is to become lifelong learners. Build new skills, rotate through short term projects, read, attend trainings – there is a gamut of opportunities to choose from. It’s crucial too. In fact, The Economist recently argued that with all the disruptions in the modern economy, particularly from technology, ongoing skill acquisition is critical to continuous successful employment and better earning potential.

However, psychologists are of the belief that more than learning, we need to lean more towards unlearning – the ability to shift from an outdated mental framework or outlook, to a new one that serves better. In the business world, unlearning is all about removing mental barriers to success. This process includes the following steps:

  1. Recognizing that the current outlook is no more effective. This is a challenge because we are usually unconscious of our mental models. In addition, there also might be some resistance around change, because we have built our identity and careers on the mastery of these old models. Letting go can seem like losing our status, authority, or sense of self, and starting over.
  1. Creating a new model that can better achieve goals. This is about seeing a new perspective for what it is, as opposed to from the old lens. For example, many companies are ineffective in their use of social media because they still think of it as a channel for distributing a message. They haven’t made the mental shift to view social media as a possible virtual community, or tool to mobilize people.
  1. Converting new information to habits. This is no different from embracing new behavior. The tendency is usually to fall back into the old way of thinking and doing. It’s useful to create touchpoints that define the new model – words, symbols, or actions – and use them to guide behavior. For example, when talking about your customers, catch yourself when you call them ‘consumers’. Find a word that reflects a more collaborative relationship. The shift in language helps to reinforce the shift in mindset.

In all this, do you sometimes wonder about what is it that you need to learn in the first place? Author Gretchen Rubin suggests an interesting approach. She says, observe someone you envy professionally. What is it they have, that makes you envious? This can show you how to grow and change. List three skills or attitudes you see in those people, and start learning them!

Remember, think big, but start small. Just ask, what do I need to unlearn today, to move closer to my larger learning goals? You’ll set yourself up for success.

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