Train on Your Own. Learn with Others.

Train on Your Own. Learn with Others.

If you could ask an innovative HR leader for her insights on your most pressing concerns, what do you think her advice might be? When Leena Nair, Chief Human Resources Officer at Unilever was asked just that, she did what a leader who values true inclusion would do: she asked for a diversity of perspectives.

Retweeting a post from @EmekaOnuoha2, Leena asked her followers for counsel on finding opportunities to grow in their roles. Her tweet not only caught my eye, but others’ as well!

twitter chat with @leenanairHR

Of course, several people responded with “textbook” answers: books, training courses, etc.  And several encouraged Emeka to look beyond himself, to network with influencers in his organization or his desired field. These answers are all thoughtful and correct, but somehow incomplete.

Training vs. Learning

So many societal narratives about learning revolve around cognition, or increasing the things we know. We focus on acquiring information – in books, classes, online – in precise and practical increments. For very specific training needs, this works well to deliver the information we need. For example, if we look to answer the question “how” (how do I run an excel spreadsheet, how do I operate this machine), then skill-based training is perfect.

But Emeka is asking “what.” He seeks help with a much more complex challenge: to learn in spaces he has yet to identify, to develop knowledge that will help him contribute in meaningful ways. It’s precisely in these unknown contexts, where we can’t articulate the specific information we seek, that we learn best from and with others in more open, exploratory ways.

In fact, Emeka’s colleagues and peers may be the best source of these new pathways, but he needs to take the time to connect and engage with them. Cognition is in our heads, so it’s inherently individual. But well-accepted research makes clear that learning depends on the balanced interplay between cognition, emotion and social interaction.

Emotional and Social Elements of Learning

Why are the emotional and social elements so important? Meaningful learning in unknown spaces pushes us out of our comfort zones. It forces us to challenge our assumptions and to try on new ideas. It’s a continuous journey. We can’t learn if we feel anxious about acknowledging that we don’t know something, or if we are uncertain about asking for help. Without the psychological safety that allows us to admit our shortcomings, to ask for guidance, we limit ourselves to what we can learn alone. And we miss out on the vast experiences and insights of the people we see every day.

So my advice to Emeka?

Talk to your colleagues, preferably someone you don’t know. Have coffee, share points of view, grab opportunities to share personal stories. Practice questioning your assumptions, listen with your heart and connect to other perspectives and people more deeply.

If Emeka takes a page from Leena’s book and reaches out to others, he will discover that a rich vein of resources for learning and development reside but an arm’s length away. And he will stay open to areas he might not have even thought about. Just as an oblique approachworks best to tackle complex problems, learning for complex conditions requires us to consider alternative angles and different views.

Like all good expressions, it’s old but true: no man is an island. The healthiest organizations are those that encourage these kinds of collisions, that nurture emotional and social connection to enable new learning. In this hypercompetitive world where so many are looking to distinguish themselves as individuals, we ignore the insights of our peers at our own peril. Taking a social approach to explore new ideas paves the way to enter whole new spaces – armed with a diversity of relevant perspectives.

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.