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Unlearning Could be the Key to Successful Change

Woman at laptop 300_200Could the solution to resistance to change be a simple act of unlearning?  Let’s look into this and see just how complex this statement really is for humans.

Lao Tzu said, “To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”

Peter Drucker said it another way, “We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop. Half the leaders I have met don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.

Typically, we teach that learning is just about adding information and knowledge to our databases and the neural networking called our brains. However, it is also about unlearning the habits and beliefs that hold us back, and replacing them with habits and beliefs that help us to achieve the success we desire.

In his 2007 book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, Marshal Goldsmith argues that most of us delude ourselves about our achievements, our status and our contributions.

In reality, these delusions give us a sense of self confidence that blinds us to the risks and challenges in the workplace. They also hold us back from unlearning old habits which we mistakenly believe have contributed to our success. Our delusions become a serious liability during times of change. They can also provide some humorous interlude when we look back and say I can’t believe that I actually said that then.

Learning, unlearning and relearning can be vital steps to break the hold of the delusions that Marshal Goldsmith talks about but it requires transparency, integrity and a great focus on execution to be successful.

How can you build a process for learning, relearning & unlearning?

Start by determining & explaining the reasons for a change. Generally, if people understand the reason they are being asked to make a change, they will be more open to embrace new ways and drop old habits and methods.

Give them solid reasons based on measured data that will mitigate their fears. Explain how it can be better for them, describe benefits and features they believe will be a value add for everyone.

Know, describe and live the “WHY” of the change!

Objectively determine what needs to be unlearned and what needs to replace it.

When you are designing a change, ask yourself and your team what needs to be kept, but equally important, what needs to be discarded from the old paradigm? What are you going to replace it with?

If, for example, you are starting a new customer service experience, what do you need to keep from the old process? Make sure you clarify the requirements of the new process going forward.  Ensure the integrity of the integration of the old with the new is solid and agreed to by all stakeholders.

Some of the old habits that need to be unlearned are going to be hidden or covered by cultural armor which seems to make it impossible to address them.

Even worse, they may be cultivated and nurtured by a boss. These may actually be blind spots for them which now makes them extremely difficult to address.

Uncovering the unlearn list is probably more important than the new habit learn list for these very reasons. The older the organization, the more securely rooted some habits are going to be and the more difficult to talk about.  They usually have taken on an independent life of their own that is going to fight for survival.

This process requires soft skills, collaboration and excellent communications among the team to be successful.  Take time to understand the paradigms and cultural implications that will need to be addressed.

Request and Offer feedback.
Many times people are not aware of what they are doing badly or what is holding them back from doing better. They may not even recognize all the good habits.

A well administered 360-degree assessment is a tool that can provide great insights into behaviors in general. Be clear and concise on your questions, eliminate perceived biases and answer all assessment process questions before execution.

Critical Point: Provide coaching support. 
Most old habits die hard. Many people can’t or won’t change without constant support. Science tells us that it takes an average of 66 days to learn or unlearn a new habit.  The old 21 days is fantasy as far as I am concerned.  It can actually range from 18 days to 254 days according to studies done recently.

Provide coaching which helps individuals to get rid of old habits and adopt new ones. A coach can skillfully expose the way bad habits are causing problems for the individual, their colleagues and the organization.

They can highlight how small changes in behavior can achieve success. The coach will also hold coachees accountable and help them keep on track with their unlearning and relearning journey.

Embrace the long road approach to avoid frustration and possible discipline issues. Make sure that everyone involved understands there is no one-size fits all approach to this type of change. Allow room for mistakes because no one is perfect and people will fall off the wagon occasionally.

Most importantly, start with yourself, as the leader. 

So often leaders want their people to learn, change and improve, but don’t want to do any of this themselves. They assume self-improvement is only for subordinates. This is a very bad assumption that can be very costly in terms of culture and team dynamics.

Great leaders always start the learning process at their own level. Leading by example is the best way to motivate others. Many successful CEOs discuss their learning challenges openly, which makes it easier for their followers to discuss their own learning needs. As the leader, consider participating in the leadership building activities for your company.

When the boss acts like a dictator, i.e., telling everyone else they need to improve, it empowers their direct reports to adopt the same mentality and spread like a virus.

If, every level adopts the belief that those reporting to them are the ones who need to change, in the end no one changes. This leads to epic failure.

“It is not hard to learn more. What is hard is to unlearn when you discover yourself wrong.” Martin H. Fisher

In summary, understanding the process of unlearning can make your organization more agile, more competitive and more progressive than ever before but the key lies in being intentional and transparent in the communications and change process itself.  I would love to talk with you about it,  so please check out our website at Transformative Leadership Group or call me at 630-454-4821.