Cultivate and Sustain a Learning Culture Within Your Organization

image of lightbulbs on purple background representing learning culture concept

Many of us have been affected in some way by what’s been deemed the “Great Resignation.” Whether you’ve personally made a career shift, have scaled back work to care for loved ones during the pandemic, have stepped in to cover your departing colleagues’ responsibilities, or are charged with retaining employees in your organization, we’ve all felt the impact of the staggering statistics of employees resigning. 

Many employees are eager to find more meaning or growth in their jobs and are searching for a better place to work, and at the same time, organizations are feeling pressed to find and keep the best talent for the future. To stay competitive, organizations must intentionally create cultures that attract, develop, and retain talent so they can successfully execute new strategies for the changing world.  

How can your organization create a culture that puts learning at the forefront – in a way that’s practical, behavioral, and scalable – in order to have the greatest impact on employee engagement? It starts with planting seeds for a learning culture to thrive. 

What Is a Learning Culture?

Culture is loosely defined as “how work gets done around here.” It’s the beliefs and values, often unspoken, that lead to behaviors – and those behaviors in turn mold the culture. A learning culture is one that demonstrates and encourages individual and organizational learning, and where both gaining and sharing knowledge is prioritized, valued, and rewarded. It becomes part of the ecosystem of the organization.

While it’s no small feat, there are 4 important components that can help transform your organization’s current culture into a learning culture.  

infographic with text "4 components to cultivating a learning culture"

4 Components to Cultivating a Learning Culture

1. Attract and Develop Agile Learners.

If you’re looking to upskill your workforce or perhaps reskill yourself, learning agility is one of the most critical skillsets to develop. Our research at CCL has long shown that the most successful leaders with the longest careers have the key leadership trait of learning agilityLearning agile leaders exemplify a growth mindset by learning from experience, challenging perspectives, remaining curious, and seeking new experiences.    

Because employees with learning agility continue to grow their skills and capabilities regardless of their current job, these individuals are in demand in the quest for talent. The workplace of yesterday no longer exists, and organizations need agile learners who understand how to transfer their current skillset to solve new problems and build capabilities for tomorrow. 

When hiring new talent, seek out this critical “power skill” by asking interviewees how they’ve approached difficult situations in the past, how they’ve learned from mistakes, or how they prepare themselves for new challenges. Inquire about how they’ve applied their learnings to their next opportunity.  

Foster learning agility in your current team members by providing on-the-job learning and stretch assignments along with support in the form of tools and coaching. Provide access to development opportunities for employees across your organization – not limiting skill building to a small subset deemed “high potential.” A learning culture that democratizes leadership development and values a growth mindset attracts and develops a workforce that truly wants to learn, and help others learn as well.  

2. Create an Environment That Supports Psychological Safety.

Looking at the teams and groups in your organization, are you fostering the trust and collaboration needed to sustain a learning culture? By creating safe spaces to be open and take interpersonal risks at work, you can build a foundation of psychological safety and encourage the learning that contributes to innovation and productivity. 

Psychological safety is about promoting risk-taking and candor in a group to create a secure  environment for optimal learning. In your organization’s culture, it’s the belief that candor is welcome, that employees can ask questions often and early, and that people can freely admit mistakes without fear of retribution. 

Encourage team members (especially senior leaders) to admit mistakes and share stories of “failing forward.” Doing so allows the team to learn collectively and leads to a strong culture where groups are willing to listen, invite differing opinions, and learn together. Remember, it’s not about being polite, but rather about being open. The openness to take interpersonal risks and learn from those risks to achieve something greater shows that learning is valued, which leads to a learning-forward culture.  

Access Our Webinar!

Watch our webinar, How Leaders and Leadership Collectives Can Increase Psychological Safety at Work, and learn how to promote psychological safety to foster trust, creativity, collaboration, and innovation across your organization.

3. Encourage Better Conversations and Feedback Throughout the Organization.

In a learning culture, effective communication and feedback is woven throughout the organization and is encouraged and expected as a part of the norm. When feedback becomes a part of regular conversations, employees are aware of their personal developmental areas, resulting in continuous gains and less surprises at end-of-year reviews. 

Giving feedback – and holding high-quality conversations in general – require a particular skillset that can fortunately be learned. Because a conversation by definition involves 2 or more people, the collective communication competency of an organization is greatly enhanced when all employees are knowledgeable and skilled at holding high-quality conversations.   

That’s why our clients who scale conversational skills training across their organizations see such positive results in upgrading their cultures. When a critical mass of people shares a common understanding around what constitutes an effective conversation, it allows new skills to be applied to everyday work and spread organically through the organization. Widely applied, improved conversational skills benefit the organization by creating a more dynamic and psychologically safe, learning culture. 

Encourage employees to seek both positive and developmental feedback – positive feedback can help them leverage what’s working well, and developmental feedback allows them to see what can be improved upon or done differently to have greater impact.  

4. Make Learning an Organizational Priority. 

If you want to show that learning is a real priority within your organization, send clear signals to your workforce that you’re all in. Examine your policies, rewards systems, and opportunities. Consider scheduled events like lunch-and-learns where senior leaders are storytellers who share their experiences and what they’ve learned recently and throughout their career journeys. Make it a common practice to conduct after-action reviews where teams regularly take a few minutes to share what they learned from a project or experience. Offer learning communities and designated development days where individuals can share what they’ve learned and how they’re applying it in their everyday work. 

To show that your organization believes learning is for everyone, make development opportunities inclusive and accessible across the entire organization. The practice of scaling learning will be unique for every organization, but be sure to provide an array of opportunities and delivery formats to meet learner needs and abilities including asynchronous, online, face-to-face, self-paced, etc. A true learning culture provides support for learning, not only in the form of tools, but also by encouraging leaders to allocate time for themselves and their teams to absorb and practice new skills.  

When every employee sees that the organization values both individual and collective growth, you’ll strengthen your learning culture and gain commitment from your team members. 

Develop a Learning Culture That’s Tailored to Your Organization 

To tailor your learning strategy to your organization, make sure to align your business strategy and leadership development opportunities, as well as your organization’s broader values, language, and brand. Examine the capabilities needed both today and into the future, and ask employees what type of development would be most valuable for them, as well as how they prefer to learn.

It’s important to acknowledge that not everyone is in a place to jump in right away. Keep in mind that behavior change is difficult, and meet people where they are, encouraging small steps, risk taking, and sharing through peer support. Use metrics to keep a pulse on what’s resonating and having an impact so that you can adapt as needed and evolve your learning strategy as you grow.

Every organization is different, and the path to truly making learning part of the ecosystem will be different as well. But with an intentional focus and commitment from senior leadership, you can plant the seeds today that allow a learning culture to flourish – resulting in a more agile organization that’s prepared for the challenges of tomorrow. 

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Build a learning culture in your organization by democratizing access to development opportunities. Take advantage of CCL Passport™, which gives you unlimited access to our world-renowned content and our most comprehensive package of proven, transformative leadership solutions. If you license our content, you can bring our proven research, programs, and tools in-house to leaders at all levels of your organization.

February 12, 2022
Stephanie Trovas
About the Author(s)
Stephanie Trovas
Stephanie Trovas is the Global Director, Product Development for CCL and leads a team to help develop products and solutions. With over 20 years of experience in the learning and development field, she has designed, facilitated and managed numerous human-centered leadership solutions with a focus on impact and application to make the learning stick. Stephanie has worked extensively with individuals and organizations from a variety of industries, organizational functions, and countries with a focus on senior leaders and what it takes to lead functions, divisions, and business units.

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