New Learning

Achieving mastery by unlearning

Rethinking knowledge work

At the end of the last century, Peter Drucker predicted that becoming productive as a knowledge worker would require a change in attitude, whereas previously industrial workers just had to be told how to do the work. This new way of working requires that individual knowledge workers are given accountability for their own productivity and are no longer controlled by supervisors or managers. They manage themselves and need autonomy to do so. This also means that they take responsibility for the quality of their work, and it is essential that the appropriate skills and competencies are available or acquired.

In many ways attempts continue to classify the level of professional maturity by means of complicated career models. However, this conservative knowledge management only produces streamlined workforces and predictable results. It is directed at quantitative output, contrary to Drucker’s theory of continuous qualitative learning, which focuses on the added value — from Know-How to Know-Why.

Nevertheless, the prevailing career model of many companies reflects the expectation of the workforce about what they need to know in order to perform the field of activity of each individual position. To get a picture of such a predefined position, you can read through many conventional job descriptions that can be found on the relevant web portals. It is well defined for which specific tasks this position is to be assigned. This creates a fit that is applied to the applicant in order to determine suitability. In the company itself, an associated career ladder is offered to guide further development. For this formal framework, each department defines its requirements for the maturity levels of its workforce based on past patterns of success.

Methods that are supposed to help us classify and rank employees increase bureaucracy but do not focus on people and their potential. No one should be backward-looking in the face of current challenges, but should constantly pursue new learning experiences that inspire and develop people and their teams. Competence is much more complex than it is often encountered.

The Learning Template

Certificates and reports are a common evaluation standard. But how can they measure whether someone can bring the necessary maturity and experience to the team? Being agile and operating within a learned management framework are two fundamentally different things. Teaching knowledge through top-down instructions, as in school and evaluating with grades and certificates is a questionable legacy from the 18th century.

Impressions of a school from the Industrial Age on an ancient painting: “The School Hour” by Georg Emanuel Opiz (ca. 1835)

In the school system as we know it today, conformity has always been educated, originally to teach factory workers the principle of what to learn rather than how to learn. In this way, young and diverse people are re-educated to be obedient objects, not independent thinking subjects. The pressure to perform and the fear of not living up to the workload lead to a stimulation of our “reptile brain“, which throws us back into primitive reactive behaviour patterns and stops the desire to learn new things; according to neurobiologist Gerald Huether. As long as this way of learning does not change in school, it must be unlearned in the work context of the present if we want to exploit our potential.

The authoritarian perspective demands: “Tell me what knowledge you can demonstrate to qualify for the job.”, should be replaced with:

Let’s debate with reasonable arguments and not decide through hierarchy power.

Following this mindset team members are encouraged to experiment according to their actual strengths in order to deal with increasing complexity. Assigning responsibility is a learning process, but it’s worth it, because getting to know and appreciate the strengths and natural role of the workforce requires more than two annual career talks and regular status reports.

A person holding up a heavy dumbbell bar with one arm, symbolic for exeptional strength

The Annual Barrier to Evolution

In traditional organizations, many hours are spent on the annual review (210 hours per manager/year on average, according to the Corporate Executive Board (CEB)), even though most sense and even know that it is often unfair and political. It’s about bonuses, promotion, or even keeping the job. Once a year, a crucial feedback session is arranged between the manager and the member to discuss, on an asynchronous basis of information, where someone has performed well or poorly. This means that in most cases the person giving the feedback has not even experienced how the other person being assessed has behaved in the first place. She has to rely on getting highly subjective feedback from involved team members and uses binary data. Success or failure. Yes or No. How exactly the outcome was achieved often remains untouched.

The ludicrous thing is that most of the time we are talking about target agreements that were made a year ago — In a world as dynamic as ours. How can one predict whether this hard target will still be valid in its form several weeks from now, let alone a year from now? Moreover, this is obviously harmful to the company, because this provokes that the individual does not address the higher concerns of the team or any unforeseen problem at all – Only to achieve the clearly defined personal goals. On requirements, besides these rigid success criteria, a characteristic reaction of the member is:

‘That’s not my job!’

As a result, the defined positions in the org-chart are cemented even more tightly and a narrow range is predetermined where the member is allowed to be effective and implicitly bounded where he or she should not. This phenomenon is what social psychology calls sandbagging. The bar is kept deliberately low and thus the performance range remains controlled.

A New Approach for Performance and Personal Growth

It is not sufficient to simply define the structure of a new career model. We need a cultural framework in which performance appraisal takes place as a team‘s task and personal growth of individuals is perceived as a collective mission. Experience has shown that a monolithic model as a one-size-fits-all solution is rarely promising for very diverse expectations and needs from a wide variety of backgrounds. Furthermore, imposed change ignores the ever-changing environment in which we operate.

There will still be an integrated decision-making process for workforce members to negotiate role accountabilities and salary adjustments at regular intervals similar to the annual review. The decision authority lies where the added value is created — in the team itself. The initial question therefore is: How do you create the conditions for identifying which skills and roles are needed by the team itself?

A plant grows from the ground. The leaves have the shape of an eye and symbolize personal growth.

In order to establish an operational agreement for all team members, it is reduced to the basic elements. In a team charter, they determine the direction in which their strategy is pulling them, what their expectations are, and what roles they need in order to achieve this. The team agrees on the principles of good work itself. They define fair metrics given the transparency they need about what success looks like to them. This is the beginning toward significant decentralization with the overall goal of fostering an ongoing dialogue within the team.

The following principles emerged as effective guidance:

  • Strength orientation of members to create added value;
  • Effectiveness in the continuous improvement of outcomes;
  • Rituals of collaboration;
  • A dose of entrepreneurial thinking and pragmatism.

Advantages of an Open Learning Space

The goal is to create a supportive environment that motivates further development and enables self-efficacy. From a bureaucratic command structure to a human-centered and truly agile organization. We need an environment that enables learning spaces where roles can emerge according to the context, rising beyond the static org chart. Spaces that encourage intrinsic drive to explore new knowledge, acquire skills, develop existing ones, and experiment with diverse approaches, methods, and techniques.

Various symbols that characterize learning: An eye and the iris is represented as a magnifying glass; A hook and a cross; A test tube.

Because knowledge workers achieve maturity through accumulated experience in direct interaction with real problems. By observing and adapting skills that mutually complement their own by having different areas of expertise collaborating. High social density and diverse perspectives among team members, produce the most valuable results. It generates confidence to solve problems and support each other in doing so.

Letting go of the assumption about our self is an essential basic attitude of learning. Open to a world full of possibilities, outside our frame of reference. This often doesn’t even require a specific goal. The principle of serendipity teaches us to remain open and attentive to coincidences — to new things and to change.

Zen speaks about the beginner’s mind: Free from preconceptions about how something works. Free from expectations about what will happen. Filled with curiosity to understand things more deeply. How you perceive yourself can have a positive impact on that. Carol Dweck analyzed human motivation for this purpose. If you believe that your qualities are unchangeable — the Fixed Mindset — you will always want to prove yourself right instead of learning from mistakes. In her book, Mindset, she writes how a Growth Mindset creates a strong passion for learning.

Why would you waste time proving how great you are over and over again when you could just keep getting better?

The belief that abilities do not change (fixed), in contrast to the attitude of seeing failures as opportunities for growth, makes all the difference.

How to Take Off The Mask and Empower Teams

Where value is created, it is about the subject matter, not the person. In collaborative dialogue situations, the value-creating team gives each other formal 360° feedback to allow as little subjectivity as possible from managers. Peer bias is eliminated by involving the market environment early on, in the context of test iterations.

This is demonstrated and practiced through relentless openness to any feedback from senior roles: Walk the talk. Vulnerability and also the ability to deal transparently with one’s own needs. Reflecting on one’s own emotional state is absolutely essential here:

Are my needs currently met, or do I feel a conflict that is being created externally?

According to the Schulz-Von-Thun & Gordon communication model, this impulse can be expressed in such a way that it is not perceived as an attack on the people involved (‘YOU did XY wrong’), but is instead stated as a first-person observation. This keeps it personal with you for the time being. In addition, you create space to convey how you are feeling emotionally and which personal values and needs are affected. A mature team member mirrors these needs to the recipient to avoid being perceived in an unconstructive way. Now the member can make an offer to release his or her own tension. The first-person message thus does not intrude the personal space of the addressed person (‘I need XY to be effective.’). The corresponding non-violent communication (simplified: perception, impact, desire, wish), according to Marshall Rosenberg, was previously understood as a soft skill and has now become an elementary hard skill for effective feedback.

A happy theatre mask covers a sad theatre mask. Emblematic of the theatrical play of work in companies.

To successfully serve the business model on the one hand and at the same time enabling a framework of individual talent and skill, performance and personal growth should be separated. Where performance becomes measurable, it is about results and transparent critique in the team. Personal growth is a very subjective topic and is accompanied by regular 1:1 dialogues and focused mentorship. Developmental discussions in relation to the company’s current way of working continue to exist, but the incentives for commitment and expansion of skills, remains in the hands of the workforce. In practical terms, for companies, this means:

Personal growth is not part of the performance evaluation

The dialog spaces established in this way require rituals and roles for an environment of open communication. Both promote evolutionary development into an effective team and take into account the attitude of individuals (“Deliberately Developmental Organization” (DDO), Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey).

An abstract form that develops from the small into a large cone. In the end, an eye stands for individual personality evolving over time.

Skills for good collaboration move from the trivial to the foreground by actively demonstrating that infallibility is an illusion. Admitting to not knowing certain things yet and making room for skilled people from the team gradually leads to more self-responsibility. A re-conditioning of the cultivated reactivity of the workforce takes place when the leadership role actively demands honest feedback about their work. Leadership becomes participatory. In this way, team members learn that they have nothing to fear when ventures lead to failure — Better yet, that passive inaction gets us nowhere and that we only grow through bold bets and experimentation.

Organizations that create a safe space to be imperfect end up with the most impressive teams. Teams that question themselves and actively seek challenges with no certain outcome — challenges that exceed their current capabilities. That’s the only way they continue to develop in a sustainable way. Since Amy Edmondson, we’ve been giving this culture a name: Psychological safety is a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking their open mind. It describes a team environment of interpersonal trust and mutual respect where people feel comfortable being themselves at work. This atmosphere helps to prevent the sensitive reptilian brain from activating in the first place and supports the desire to learn new things even in the face of uncertainty.




Alexander De Baptistis | Org Catalyst

A Transformation coach & Org Designer. I lead through change and explore possible futures with organizations. Together we increase ownership & unfold potential.