July 1, 2024

Learning Cultures and Leadership: Why it matters

Here’s a quick question. What do you think of when you hear ‘learning cultures’? 

Maybe it’s an organisation open to sharing skills and knowledge widely, or perhaps one where everyone actively seeks new opportunities.

The thing is, a learning culture is made up of many different elements, with leadership intrinsically linked. 

By that, we mean a true learning culture doesn’t happen by chance. It’s built through deliberate actions and a clear vision led by the organisation’s leaders. This design-by-doing approach sets the tone and creates the conditions for everyone to flourish.

In this blog, we’ll explore what a learning culture is, why it matters, how it benefits leaders, and practical steps leaders can take to create and support it. We’ll also look at how storytelling can be a powerful tool in this process.

What is a learning culture?

A learning culture is a combination of values, practices, and processes that focus on continuous learning and improvement. It involves:

  • Supporting individual learning at all levels and allowing this knowledge to shape strategy and processes
  • Encouraging teams to learn, reflect on their work, and influence strategy and process changes
  • Having an openness to share skills and expertise without worrying about negative consequences such as criticism, judgment, or loss of job security
  • Leading by example by actively promoting and participating in learning activities
  • Open and honest communication where feedback is encouraged
  • Alignment with organisational goals, ensuring relevance and impact
  • Collaboration and teams working together to solve problems with curiosity and courage
  • Creating and maintaining happy, engaged, and satisfied employees

All these depend on support from the top – the foundation for building a thriving learning culture.

Why learning cultures matter

Before we share why learning cultures matter, let’s look at the effects of a stagnant,  short-term-focused workplace first.

When individuals and teams are knowledge-hoarders, it slows progress, creates silos, and makes it harder to come up with new ideas or respond quickly to changes in the industry.  Communication is often closed, with little encouragement for feedback or sharing of information. 

Rather than exploring new ideas or adapting to evolving challenges, the focus remains on following established routines and procedures. Mistakes may be met with blame rather than seen as opportunities for learning and growth. 

Plus, short-term goals take precedence over long-term skill development and strategic learning initiatives. Without proper attention, workplace learning cultures can quickly become mere checkbox exercises for compliance rather than the valuable business tools they are meant to be.

Let’s illustrate this with an example of a company implementing mandatory online workplace safety training modules for its employees. Instead of integrating these modules into learning in the flow of work, the business simply requires employees to complete the modules to tick off a compliance box. Staff keep pushing the training to the bottom of their priorities, and when they finally complete it, they do so without engagement or retention, merely to fulfill the requirement. 

As a result, the training doesn’t have a tangible impact because employees rush through it without really learning or using the information in their daily work. What’s more, learning wasn’t a priority, especially for busy managers who were reluctant to let their team members participate in training, which took time away from their regular tasks. As a result, the workplace remains as unsafe and unprepared as before.

On the other hand, a culture that encourages knowledge-sharing enhances team collaboration, fosters innovation, and continuously improves performance. This not only enhances organisational resilience and capability but also boosts engagement, teamwork, and operational efficiency.

We’ll let the data speak for itself. 

Research from Bersin by Deloitte reveals that high-performance learning organisations:

  • Are 58% more prepared to meet future demands
  • Are 92% more likely to innovate
  • Respond to customer needs 34% faster
  • Are 46% more likely to be first to market
  • Deliver products of higher quality, performing 26% better 
  • Have a 17% greater likelihood of leading in market share
  • Experience 37% higher employee productivity

Need we say more?

How does a learning culture make a leader’s life easier? (Or, What are the practical benefits of a learning culture for leaders?)

Leaders face the challenge of navigating a chaotic, unpredictable, and constantly changing environment while guiding their teams effectively through it, ensuring they stay motivated and ready for the next challenge. 

It’s no easy task.

Learning cultures can significantly lighten these responsibilities. Let’s take a look at some of the ways they can do this.

Enhanced problem-solving

Teams in learning cultures develop critical thinking skills that lead to innovative solutions. For example, teams immersed in a learning culture continually refine their critical thinking abilities through formal or informal learning. 

Employees learn to identify and define problems clearly, breaking them into manageable parts to find practical solutions. This equips them to tackle challenges with innovative solutions that may not have been considered otherwise.

This means leaders can assess situations objectively, consider different perspectives, and make well-founded decisions based on facts, not hunches.

Reduced micromanagement

When employees take the initiative to develop their skills and capabilities and actively engage in their own growth, they become more self-sufficient and confident in their roles. 

This proactive approach allows leaders to delegate tasks with trust, knowing their team members can make informed decisions and handle responsibilities independently. As a result, leaders have more time to focus on strategic planning, innovation, and supporting their teams’ overall success rather than being bogged down by the need for constant supervision and control.

Improving employee well-being

Alarmingly, 91% of UK adults faced significant stress levels last year. Adding to this, 20% had to take time off work due to mental health issues caused by pressure or stress.

Learning cultures prioritise mental health and well-being by fostering supportive environments. Here, open communication channels and strong support networks, like dedicated forums for discussing and advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, empower employees to feel comfortable addressing health concerns. This approach helps reduce absenteeism and boosts productivity by mitigating the effects of employee absences and operational disruptions on leaders.

Smoother succession planning

Considering that just 9% of businesses have fully integrated succession plans, and 6% have given it no thought at all, learning cultures play a crucial role in continuous development.

Learning cultures encourage individuals to advance into leadership roles, learn, and reflect on their work, ensuring a steady pipeline of qualified successors. This proactive approach addresses succession planning gaps and supports stability by helping leaders cultivate a reliable pool of capable candidates through ongoing development and training. It reduces the stress of sudden leadership changes and ensures smoother transitions, maintaining organisational stability and continuity.

Accelerated onboarding

Learning cultures often have mentorship programs where experienced employees help new hires adapt to the organisational culture and understand job expectations. This reduces the need for leaders to change or introduce new policies for employee induction and onboarding programmes.

Additionally, new employees become productive more quickly, contributing to team success and lightening the workload for leaders. By promptly integrating new hires into the team culture using a strong learning environment, leaders can focus on other essential tasks, like building stakeholder relationships.

Better risk management

Equipping teams to anticipate and mitigate risks through learning cultures reduces the burden on leaders to manage crises, allowing them to focus on long-term planning and growth. 

With teams capable of handling potential issues, leaders experience less stress and can trust their teams to navigate challenges effectively. For example, if a hospitality team regularly engages in health and safety training, they can quickly identify potential project pitfalls and develop contingency plans, preventing accidents and avoiding damage to reputation.

What steps can leaders take to build a learning culture?

Leaders build a learning culture with a shared understanding that ‘learning is normal and how things are done around here.’  This mindset requires organisation-wide vision, buy-in, and action, with leaders influencing this vision. Leaders can do this by taking several proactive steps:

  1. Promote continuous learning. Emphasise that learning is fundamental to the organisation’s identity and daily operations. Develop approaches that go beyond traditional training programs and workshops by embedding learning into the organisational culture in innovative and impactful ways. For example, mini-conferences, lunch-and-learn sessions, or internal exhibitions where employees present on topics they’ve studied or projects they’ve worked on.
  2. Lead by example: Demonstrate a personal commitment to learning and development and encourage others to do the same. Share challenges you face in managing time to access training and how you overcome them. Reflect on what you have learned and explain the steps you will take to apply this new knowledge in practice. Foster an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their expertise and learning from each other.
  3. Create learning opportunities: Because learning and development isn’t one-size-fits-all, offer diverse resources, such as asynchronous learning, workshops, and mentoring, that encourage employees to acquire new skills and knowledge. 
  4. Reward learning: Recognise and reward employees who actively engage in learning and contribute to a culture of continuous improvement. Review company policies to include rewards and recognition, and include your people in the process.
  5. Evaluate and adjust. Collect feedback from participants and stakeholders to regularly evaluate how well learning initiatives work and make any needed changes. Analyse outcomes against predefined goals and identify areas for improvement. Leaders can then adjust learning programmes, resources, or strategies to enhance their impact and relevance to organisational objectives. 
  6. Empower employees: Encourage employees to take personal responsibility for their development by listening to their feedback and understanding their learning needs and challenges. Give them the freedom and resources to pursue their interests and apply new skills in their jobs. This empowers employees to drive their own growth and boosts job satisfaction.

Storytelling to create a learning culture

Human brains are wired for great stories. According to an HBR report, people naturally remember compelling and persuasive stories, which makes us think and feel in ways facts and figures can’t. 

Since great leaders are numbers AND people-focused, storytelling is a powerful way to promote a learning culture. Stories provide a personal connection, making the learning concept relatable. Real-life examples illustrate the idea of a learning culture at all levels—blending strategy (logic) with culture (heart and soul) to capture attention and deliver impactful messages. 

We like the RDQN story structure: Reality, Disruption, Quest for resolution, and New Reality:

Reality: Describe the current situation. Do you have a learning culture now? What’s the attitude towards learning?

Disruption: Why is change needed now? Emphasise the importance of agile learning and knowledge sharing.

Quest for Resolution: Identify challenges and what can help. How can learning be embedded into the organisation’s DNA?

New Reality: Envision the future where learning is integral to daily operations, supported by the top team.

Top tip: Drive your message home and develop your story using the RDQN structure, get feedback, and refine. Learn from the experts by listening to our podcast, TED Talks, and books on storytelling to gain insights and inspiration. 

Create a transformational learning culture with LIW

Let’s go back to the beginning of this blog and revisit that first question: What do you think of when you hear ‘learning cultures’? 

We hope the information we’ve shared has answered this question and given you a clear understanding of how leaders influence learning cultures. Follow the steps outlined here to build a high-performance learning organisation with clarity, unity, and purpose.

LIW has worked extensively to develop high-performance learning cultures in many organisations. If you want to learn more or have a conversation about leadership, contact us — we would love to hear from you.

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