insights

Deutero-learning and other “preventative medicines” for leadership and management

We often talk about learning with the assumption that it is primarily about learning new skills and knowledge. This is a reasonable assumption in a consistent, stable and relatively predictable economic and workplace context, in which we need to learn new “content”. But we no longer work and live in such a context, since the “disruptive” forces of recent years – from mass digitisation, the infotainment society and all-pervasive ICTs creating what Floridi[1] asserts is a metaphysical shift, to climate change and biodiversity crises, to the coronavirus pandemic – have accelerated radical change and demolished much of the previous relative stability.

How we cope with this new context as organisations and individuals in the workplace, and in life in general, depends on how we adapt to the changed context. When we are faced with significant changes, we often have to look inside, in order to adapt to and process the change; at such times, we often need to find new resources, capabilities and qualities within ourselves and within our organisations, whether to better manage remote working methods (the Economist notes that people in general work longer hours from home), or to better manage people in times of stress.

Self-knowledge and self-awareness in relation to others

Self-knowledge and self-awareness are, I suggest, the key to adapting effectively to challenging new contexts, if we want to avoid undermining ourselves or others. Learning, from this perspective, becomes not merely a question of learning new domain-specific skills, technologies or information, but rather learning about how we interact with others in the new contexts, and how we can improve these interactions for mutual benefit: how we can become better people and better managers. After all, learning new skills becomes easier and less stressful when we learn more about ourselves, for example when we understand our preferred methods of learning.

I am not suggesting mass introspection in the workplace! There is no time for that. But if we want to adapt sustainably to the new contexts and to flourish in them, perhaps we need to focus some of our learning efforts on better understanding and questioning our mental models, what motivates us and what motivates others, and seeking common ground between the two.

This obviously has particular significance for leaders and managers; you could argue it simply good practice for leaders to do this, as it is to manage others’ expectations in any venture or project, with responsibility and integrity. However, it is extremely challenging to do this effectively, given the immense pressure on leaders and managers to demonstrate growth and results in ever shorter timescales and increasingly aggressive and rapidly transforming marketplaces, as well as to make and implement decisions rapidly.

Happily, there are some key methods, practices and approaches that can significantly help leaders and managers in this endeavour. We will briefly explore four of these in this article:

  • conscious double-loop learning;
  • deutero-learning;
  • thoughtful and extensive use of feedback methods;
  • collaborative problem-solving workshops (especially online; remote working can be alienating).

It does require, though, some commitment to creating space and time to develop this learning agility, our “learning muscles” for example through regular, detached half-hour reflections, both individually and collectively.

L&D, return on investment and behaviour-change

If we want to understand the benefits of deploying learning resources, or crack that old chestnut of return on investment (ROI) for L&D, we need to understand how behaviours – ours and others’ – are shaped by habits, attitudes and aptitudes, values and motivation. Some benefits are not measurable and should be accepted as shared values to uphold, for example responsibility, truth, honesty, equality, integrity; but how can we know whether these values are practised within the organisation.

Individual behaviour-change and team behaviour-change are common and consistent objectives of learning and development, supported by widely recognised theories such as the Kirtkpatrick Model and 70:20:10. In an era of information accessibility, global interconnectedness and accelerated change, the ability to apply learning by adapting and changing one’s methods and approaches, both as an individual and as a group, becomes critical. So, it is clear that L&D has a vital role to play in modern organisations, whatever strategies and instruments are used to ensure and apply learning. However, as with all learning, culture and related habits are the primary influence, and motivation and application are two key defining factors.

Learning and leadership in the infosphere

Existing in what is now termed the “infosphere”[2], in which our lives, both professional and personal, are conducted in a pervasive digital information environment, requires us to learn what Potter and McDougall term “third space literacies”, to learn new information behaviours, and develop the critical faculties manage this complexity without losing our values, or those of the organisation with which we work. The ethical challenges of the infosphere are already well-documented and increasingly well-recognised, as in recent years these have become more acute.

Indeed in the infosphere, an organisation’s reputation can be rapidly advanced or swiftly damaged by the social media-amplified effects of its cultural norms and the dominant behaviours, especially those deployed by leaders and managers. In mainstream Western media and society, where there is a pervasive habit to perceive innovation and entrepreneurship as the preserve of individual leaders, for example Jobs or Musk, rather than the result of collaborative efforts or government funding and public initiatives[3], the risk of damage through creating and clamouring around the cult of the individual leader is exacerbated.

One example of leadership difficulties in this amplified and accelerated context, recently in the news[4], is that of Brewdog, the Scottish craft beer brewer, whose reputation, specifically in the persons of the co-founders and leaders, has been severely damaged as a result of a large number of allegations from former staff about a “toxic culture” and “bullying” have come to light. When workers and former workers get together to complain about bad treatment, bullying or their basic rights not being respected (which happens far more often than we care to notice), leaders of some of the most dominant companies operating today typically deploy powerful PR, marketing and legal campaigns to silence the criticism, rather than publicly face it in person and pledge to learn from their mistakes; to his credit, the co-founder and CEO of Brewdog has done the latter.

Unfortunately, the role of learning in positively changing behaviour is often assumed to focus on “the rank and file”, i.e. the staff, in businesses, and the students, in universities. There is a sort of tacit assumption that in times of great change, learning and education is primarily for the ordinary members of the organisation, and not really for existing leaders, who it is assumed, are leading the change or have their own special high-level learning objectives. This tendency, combined with the cult for individual leaders, often results in insufficient focus on changing behaviours through learning at the most senior levels, and therefore in the culture of the organisation. As the co-founder of Brewdog recognises, there is plenty of important learning that leaders of rapidly growing businesses need to undertake to avoid perpetuating staff discontent and reputational damage.

But much of this damage can be avoided if the leaders of the company appreciate from the outset that their own learning in inclusive leadership and empathetic people management is equally as important as the company’s domain expertise (e.g. brewing, in this case) and financial growth. It is easy to be influenced by the cult of individual leaders, or of leading brands achieving apparently miraculous results in short timescales through one high-profile individual; that is part of modern business mythmaking. In this particular case, the co-founder was very young at 24 when he set the company up and had no previous experience as a leader, so why should he himself or anyone else expect him to be able to lead and manage a wide range of staff in a rapidly growing international business in a sector, craft beer, which is undergoing massive, unprecedented global growth?

Deutero-learning

Amidst such a frenzy – and there are many parallels in other sectors, topically, the pharmaceutical sector – it cannot be easy for leaders and managers to create time for enhancing self-knowledge and self-awareness, especially if there are no guiding mentors helping them to make this a habit. Developing our “learning habit” means, by definition, involving ourselves in a process of reflection on our learning strategies and resultant decisions and actions, subsequently adjusting our mental models where necessary and implementing new methods and approaches – including new learning practices – in the light of that learning. This process is called deutero-learning, also known as triple-loop learning.

Deutero-learning is not a new term, having been around since the 1940s (Bateson), but it is a concept still in development and under debate. Its power as a means of improving individual and organisational behaviour in the workplace is considerable, especially when conceived as it is by Visser: “behavioural adaptation to patterns of conditioning in relationships in organisational contexts”. In a previous post on “Organisational Bildung”, I explored how deutero-learning is one of several means of embedding the practice of learning within an organisation; here, I focus more on the individual, specifically leaders and managers and the role of learning strategies in how they interact with others.

Essentially there are three phases in the deutero-learning process:

  1. examining the connections between actions and consequences, and adjusting the actions (single-loop learning);
  2. critically reflecting on the connections between consequences and the assumptions that have shaped the actions, and adjusting those first, then the actions (double-loop learning);
  3. adjusting cognitive and learning strategies based on the conclusions from these reflections (triple-loop learning).

In practice, this can be translated as understanding why certain mindsets and “patterns of conditioning” lead to particular types of behaviour which in turn result in certain outcomes. Step 2, that of double-loop learning (Agyris) is the transformative one for many leaders and managers in the workplace. While hard-pressed leaders and managers may typically respond to a problem with a “single-loop” learning approach, i.e. applying fixes within pre-defined parameters to solve the problem (complete with assumptions), Agyris and Schon would recommend a double-loop approach in which the leaders re-examine the governing variables, and adjust these as necessary, then amending the resulting actions.

In deutero-learning, the third step would complete the learn-reflect-apply and adjust process by questioning and updating the cognitive methods and learning strategies, not only to avoid the same issues happening again, but also to pre-empt the occurrence of future issues and problems by asking new questions. As with food and preventative healthcare, if the habits and mental models that we “consume”, that feed our assumptions, are not balanced or quality-tested in the complexity and diversity of the real world, then leadership and management health is more likely to be poor, and less likely to be inclusive.

Feedback as a bridge between self-awareness and understanding others

We can see how practising both double-loop learning, and deutero-learning can be a powerful means of development for leaders and managers, and can enable them to better understand and improve how they interact with others. The use of feedback methods and techniques is a complementary part of the jigsaw, which can bring similar benefits in term of prevention, before cure becomes necessary.

A lack of self-knowledge blocks our understanding of other people, and together these two blockages can diminish our sense of responsibility. In the workplace, well-managed feedback processes serve as a highly effective bridge between these two elements. Feedback should be implemented at all levels to be effective organisationally and individually, and for best results, leaders and managers should ideally be able to benefit from 360-degree feedback. It is not an easy option as it can be time-consuming of course, it is challenging to manage, especially in terms of privacy, and it may not appear to be directly productive. Nevertheless, over the long term it becomes business-critical since without effective feedback loops, much damage can be done internally and externally before people realise what has gone wrong.

Collaborative problem-solving

The third tool I would like to highlight as effective in developing leaders and managers “learning muscles” to enable them to become more inclusive leaders and more empathic managers is that of the collaborative problem-solving workshop.

Generally speaking, people enjoy opportunities to brainstorm, but for hard-pressed leaders and managers, often there is no time available for such an apparent luxury – vital as it is. If, however, a key problem that involves different departments has been identified within the business, for example an operational issue or a communication problem, or even an externally environment enforced problem (e.g. regulations or market transformation), rather than try and solve it among the “inner circle” of senior leaders, organisations may achieve more buy-in and cohesion through problem-based learning workshops with designated groups of staff, involving some externals.

The range of perspectives represented will require strong facilitation skills and tight workshop management, but strangely enough online collaboration makes this easier in some ways. Have you found that people tend to listen more in online meetings, rather than speak over each other? If one or two people are dominating the meeting with their views, this becomes very obvious in the detached and slightly removed virtual meeting space. There are a plethora of new tools and solutions to facilitate brainstorming and problem-solving online, and many are fun to use.

Conducting and carefully facilitating such an online collaborative workshop can achieve three objectives in one format: firstly, to find solutions to the problem identified, secondly to build collaborative capital among staff and managers and thirdly to exercise the learning muscles of all involved, enhancing the organisational learning agility. Furthermore, establishing such forum – as long as it is genuinely two-way – will enable people to feel they belong, are listened to and can contribute actively to improving the organisation and to helping leaders and managers improve.

Concluding remarks

Recognition of identity and participation are two fundamental human needs defined by Manfred Max-Neef in his rigorously developed human needs matrix. As Max-Neef illustrates, these two needs manifest in different ways but, core to them, respectively, are a sense of belonging and the opportunity to contribute meaningfully. Leaders and managers who recognise and understand these fundamental human needs, their different manifestations and the way they influence motivations and aptitudes, will have an advantage both in terms of guiding their own behaviours and in guiding others’. A future article will focus on the key issue of motivations and fundamental human needs.

Combining and applying the four approaches highlighted in this article within a leadership and management development programme which benefits the whole organisation would be a fruitful and enriching way to help leaders and managers become more inclusive, more empathic and better able to manage change without losing themselves, their staff or the values of the organisation.

[1] https://philpapers.org/rec/FLOTFR-3
[2] Luciano Floridi, 2001, 2013;
[3] Mariana Mazzucato: https://www.economist.com/open-future/2019/05/09/the-role-of-the-state-in-creating-economic-value
[4] https://www.bbc.com/news/business-57434978

written by: Simon Whittemore , 15 June 2021

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