Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

How Do You Learn?

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For most of our lives, people tell us how to learn, or society dictates the how to us. Growing up, we sit in a classroom, listening to a teacher, taking notes and hopefully digesting the lesson. Perhaps the teacher intersperses exercises or group activities. We complete homework and assignments, and maybe even do (relatively simple) group projects.

In college, we usually can read or attend class, or both, or neither. We have more direct control in what we consume educationally, although some structure exists.

In the business world, we lose that flexibility from college. We must attend training; we have a first-day or first-week orientation; we sit in a classroom with peers; we have some group tasks in this training. Of course, in the business world, we are supposed to learn on the job, through trial and error or the received wisdom from those higher on the totem pole than us.

In my experience, this inflexibility results in enormous wastage of resources, time and effort. Managers do their employees an enormous disservice by letting them go through the standard ‘sheep-dip’ training, for example. This wastage exists because no one has bothered to ask the employee, ‘how do you learn?’

An employee may have difficulty answering the question, at first. He likely has never been confronted with that question, but if pressed, no doubt can determine the answer. The answer will come because he already does learn in a way he finds useful.

For example, does he read the morning paper, or watch morning news? Does he converse about the news with his family, or email them about it throughout the day? Does he listen to soft music going home, and think through the actions of the day, or does he listen to a relevant podcast? Does he read books? Does he stop by a colleague’s office – or two – nearly every day to discuss their priorities?

The answers to these questions likely offer him clues about how he learns best. And if he can give his manager insight into how he learns, that can have a significant impact on his learning at work. Sure, there may always be mandatory, in-class or online training. But if sitting in a room with 30 other people does not get the message through to this employee, why waste additional time there? Better efforts might include: coaching; a short reading list; talking through some issues with colleagues; or even teaching colleagues some content.

Great managers ask each employee, ‘how do you learn?’ because the answer better allows them to tailor their support to that individual. For new managers or new employees, this question serves as a great foundation in creating a strong, working, high-performance relationship.


Written by Russell S.

November 16, 2009 at 9:37 pm

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