Developing a continuous learning culture in the workplace

How can we support career goals in the workplace, through a culture of continuous learning?

For too long we have sacrificed learning and development in the workplace in favor of deadlines and short-term projects. The attitude seems to have been: “Why should we spend time on coaching when we can instead focus on short-term wins that bring tangible benefits?”

Now, however, we know that companies that prioritize learning are more successful. Deloitte reports that companies with continuous learning cultures enjoy a number of benefits, including:

The Corporate Executive Board (CEB) defines a learning culture as an environment that supports an open mindset, an independent quest for knowledge and embraces shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organization. However, the CEB found only 10% of companies have true learning cultures.

The problem may arise from the fact that organizations expect HR to provide formal learning opportunities and managers to provide coaching. That approach involves the expenditure of a lot of time and resources. A 2018 Harvard Business Review article reports that a survey of HR leaders found that HR executives expect managers to spend 36% of their time developing subordinates, but a survey of managers revealed the actual amount averages just 9%.

Placing the responsibility on HR and managers alone not only costs a large amount of time, but also is ineffective in facilitating a true cultural transformation. In the CEB’s definition of a learning culture, HR and managers are both essential to ensuring that learning is directed toward company wide goals. But a true culture shift only occurs when you see people owning and driving the learning process themselves.

There is an under-utilized resource companies can leverage to complete their transition toward a continuous learning culture: peer coaching. If implemented correctly, a continuous learning culture based on peer coaching can drive performance, boost employee engagement and develop future leaders.

Here are five ways you can create a culture of continuous learning based on peer coaching.

1. Create a growth mindset environment

Continuous learning is not just about introducing new policies and opportunities. To create a true culture shift, the first step is to explain why learning is important and why you want to change the culture. Why should people participate? How will they benefit from coaching, or being coached by, their peers?

In research on the impact of mindset and learning, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck found that there are two types of mindsets people use to approach learning and development: fixed mindsets and growth mindsets.

People with fixed mindsets will struggle to take full advantage of the benefits peer coaching has to offer. They may be likely to become emotional or defensive when receiving feedback, and they may be inclined to give up when faced with obstacles.

On the other hand, people with growth mindsets will see coaching as an opportunity to develop and improve. They are much more likely to thrive in a continuous learning culture.

2. Teach people how to give great feedback

The ability to give effective feedback is a powerful skill, yet it is underdeveloped in new managers. Giving effective feedback involves a combination of several key skills that managers need — the ability to observe, communicate and listen. Helping future leaders develop those skills early on will ensure they are prepared to coach their teams.

To get the most out of peer coaching, teach your people not only how to formulate feedback but also how to receive it without letting their emotions become barriers to development.

3. Introduce 360-degree development reviews

Kick-start peer knowledge-sharing by setting specific moments during which peers share tips, insights or praise with one another. This will help people get comfortable with the process and drive the change within your company.

Start off by introducing bi-annual or quarterly 360-degree reviews in which employees focus purely on helping one another develop and improve.

4. Set learning goals within teams

In addition to having managers set standard performance goals, have all team members set their own achievable learning goals and share them with the rest of the team. Making learning goals transparent makes people accountable for reaching them and makes potential coaches within the team aware of what their peers want to learn.

Team leaders should to help their direct reports connect their learning goals to wider company objectives and ensure that team members have the time and resources they need to reach their goals. One way to make sure goals are realistic and achievable is to use the SMART model, in which goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely.

5. Start a peer-to-peer coaching ecosystem

Google strives to foster a culture of continuous learning through its “Googler to Googler” program, a peer-to-peer training initiative. Through this program, employees can volunteer to teach classes or deliver presentations on skills they have mastered — work-related or not. By 2013, 2,000 employees had already signed up to teach classes through the program, and they were responsible for 55% of Google’s official classes. One of the most famous Google peer coaches was Chade-Meng Tan, who taught a popular class on the practice of mindfulness.

You can establish a peer-to-peer coaching ecosystem at your organization by giving people the space and time to share their expertise through a similar program. By doing that, you will not only be encouraging them to share their knowledge with others, you’ll also be creating a free and more personalized way of providing learning opportunities. Try setting up monthly or twice-monthly peer learning workshops led by employee volunteers.

Even though culture change often starts at the top, you will know your organization has made a successful transition to a culture of continuous learning when you see employees driving their own independent quests for knowledge. This will only happen if you first help people overcome their reservations about constructive feedback and then provide opportunities for growth.

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