One of the people I look to for my own learning and for inspiration around leadership and strategy and behaviour, is Shane Parrish, of Farnam Street. Shane is a good thinker himself, but his superpower is to curate the wisdom of others for easy digestion by punters, like me. He favours thinking ‘shortcuts’ and mental models that support good decision-making to help live a successful life.
In one of his recent weekly newsletters, I was struck by this quote from “The Way to Love”, by Anthony De Mello:
“You can get someone to teach you things mechanical or scientific or mathematical like algebra or English or riding a cycle or operating a computer. But in the things that really matter, life, love, reality, God, no one can teach you a thing. All they can do is give you formulas. And as soon as you have a formula, you have reality filtered through the mind of someone else. If you take on those formulas, you will be imprisoned. You will wither and when you come to die you will not have known what it means to see for yourself, to learn.”
It got me thinking about what we at AltoPEOPLE aspire to do, and why most corporate training fails. A foundation principle for us is that the most important things in life can be learned but not taught. Classroom-based training rarely achieves genuine, sustained behavioural change when it is a ‘stand-alone’ event because learning doesn’t happen in the classroom – it happens in real life.
There’s a ton of ways to demonstrate this: think about the MBAs you know who have the vocabulary and the grades but lack the creativity, resilience, empathy, energy, vision and discipline to lead a successful business (or department or team). It’s not isolated to MBAs of course (though I think they’re an easy target!). There are plenty of people – and I know that this has been true for me – who attend a training course, see and hear some interesting, challenging material, discuss how it could be applied at work, and at the time are cognitively convinced that they can do this stuff. Then they return to their workplace and quickly revert to their old ways (if indeed they ever apply the content in the first place).
Why does this happen? Well, there is a ton of data out there – as you’d expect when corporate learning and development is such big business – and some observers have very different views. But one of the things we know to be true is that we are hard-wired to find the easy way; to resist the uncertainty of change and to continue to do the things that make us feel good, comfortable and secure.
We all rely on well-established neural pathways to get through our day and when change is introduced – ie learning to do something new or better or just differently – it means we need to think differently. And that ain’t easy!
Most of our daily habits, all of those things that don’t require a great deal of thought and take very little mental energy, are controlled by a part of the brain known as the basal ganglia which is buried deep in the brain structure. It provides us a comfort zone, and we like being there.
The pre-frontal cortex is where planning, problem-solving, self-control and other ‘executive functions’ live. It’s an energy-hungry part of the brain that needs to be switched on if we are to make sense of and acquire new methods of communication, influence and leadership. Interestingly, it’s directly linked to the amygdala, where evolutionary forces have lumped together most of our alarm circuits. This is where we first sense a threat; where the ‘flight, fight or freeze’ reflex lives, and where anxiety, disorientation, fear and anger can be triggered.
For our pre-frontal cortex to do its job, it first must deal with the chemical and electrical signals that the amygdala will be screaming if a threat is sensed. Any threat. This includes a challenge to the familiar comfort we have – the predictable, stable range of everyday behaviours we’ve acquired over many years. A new learning and development program that encourages those to behave differently may well be perceived as a threat.
The challenge in the training room is to invite consideration of best-practice models and frameworks; to ask learners questions, allow people to form their own views and find their own solutions within the frameworks they’ve been provided. It means allowing people to discover their own path via sharing the collective wisdom of others; sharing practical tools and fostering a willingness to play with those tools in the real world.
“Trying and struggling looks like incompetence right up until the moment it looks like success.” (Shane Parrish, Farnam Street)
Ie. you gotta practice.
We encourage people to experiment and acknowledge that learning doesn’t happen in classroom – it happens in the real world and the classroom is simply preparation.