Blog: Learning Curve

Blog: Learning Curve2020-01-13T15:39:29-05:00

2020 Marks 20 Years of Learning and Change

It happened 20 years ago this month. I was teaching graduate students full-time in organizational leadership, and one of my students made me an offer. He wanted to use some of our course work to expand leadership in his vast public healthcare network.

Leaping from academics to consulting revealed a steep learning curve. First off, I had no company. The following journey offers an overall report of our discoveries and some emerging and enduring questions.

Phase One: Leap and Learn

On January 15, 2000, I created Leadership Innovations, Inc. In doing so, my goal was to create innovative leadership programs.

Most of our clients included executives and managers looking to expand their leadership profiles. I focused my efforts on developing a model or methodology that I could call my own.

Between 2000 and 2006, leadership was finally becoming distinct from management. Leaders coped with change between paradigms, and managers coped with complexity to optimize the current paradigm.

  • Fundamental concern. The company’s focus involved three macro-conditions of change regarding 1) access to information, 2) compression of time, and 3) globalization (beyond economics). Most clients and thinkers were concerned with adapting to this new world of change.

Phase Two: Cocooning

By the end of 2006, I decided that some cocooning was in order and changed the name to Zampella Group. This change denoted enough space to explore the emerging field of leadership development without committing to a direction.

The period from 2006 to 2018 incubated a direction that established leadership as a possibility for everyone in organizational life. We also shifted our client base to include learning professionals and eventually began working with experienced coaches.

I discovered the importance of vertical development and cultivating mindsets beyond skillsets. Leadership development also emerged as a field of study, practice, and coaching beyond executive and performance coaching.

  • Fundamental concerns. During this period, VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) emerged, evolved and constituted a universal acronym as both a description and impact of non-linear change, and as the context for learning and development.

Phase Three: Emerging

By 2018, now as a team, we had spent three years developing our commitment. Last year, we rebranded as Bhavana Learning Group. The name signified our commitment to integrating Western learning models with Eastern wisdom practices to support the human side of change.

After conducting extensive research in coaching, leadership, and learning, it was clear that learning involves much more than acquiring knowledge. Our focus on learning to unlearn expands into the unknown. This involves the practice of letting go of outmoded beliefs.

Some of these beliefs, such as speed and multitasking, have been disproven by science. Others, such as balancing (or replacing) material needs with psychological needs, have been revealed by our hyper-connected reality.

We clarified our client base by adding educators to our community of experienced coaches and learning professionals.

  • Fundamental concerns. We enter this period cultivating an emerging interdependent mindset—mutually dependent awareness—that focuses on individual contemplation, which encourages unlearning with deeper connections to each other, to society, and our planet.

An Organic Process

I confess that this three-phased journey was not as neat or strategic as it seems. Nonetheless, it was organic. Not haphazardly informed (as organic often implies), but actually organic—as in intentionally present to what’s growing: being with mistakes and gaps, new questions and research, dancing with emerging client needs, and discovering new services and practices.

Questions emerged. Some were resolved, but most led to deeper inquiries and insights. This dynamic deepened our interest and fortified an emerging direction.

Our focus on research—to open enduring inquiries—was important early on. Our commitment to research and questioning the nature of change and related learning methods offered the necessary grounding to challenge our assumptions and evolve our efforts.

Surprisingly, we discovered the limitations of Western learning models to serve this level of human change. We ventured East to consume, study and synthesize wisdom, and develop practices and techniques.

The Nature of Change

The nature of change fluctuates between two vectors: the byproducts of change in a commercialized framework and the context of being human in the face of disruptive change. The latter can be unsettling, isolating, and anxiety-ridden. It led us to explore our capacity for learning and unlearning and to cope with what it means to unlearn.

The nature of change also discloses the decay of our current rationalistic, paradigm based on data, “independent” analysis, and “individualistic” approaches. This view of being human insists on learning methods that meet some arbitrary measurement standards. Such methods bias learning toward objective knowledge and material needs, as superior to experiences and psychological needs.

Lamentably, greater technological “advancements” have perpetuated increased separateness and isolation.

  • We are linked (isolated) but not connected (lack belonging).
  • Our need for instant gratification shapes our expectations and notions of progress, success, and (un)happiness.
  • We’ve substituted care for speed and quality for productivity.
  • Those “moving fast and breaking things” produce instant results and gain immediate rewards regardless of the impact or consequence on society, the planet, our democracy, or the human condition.

This nature of change requires embracing an interdependent mindset that

  • Reframes our current notions of progress, success, and growth to include greater introspection and appreciation of pluralistic views and experiences.
  • Develops a new moral imagination to reframe commercial interests with social good and economic justice.
  • Cultivates shared commitments and communities of practice where isolation is replaced with belonging and mutual growth.

The tension between the independent-individual mindset and the interdependent-collaborative mindset will likely define the 2020s as Millennials, and Generation Z enters the workforce, where multiple perspectives and cultures, shared experiences, social ethics, and belonging are highly valued.

Discoveries and Commitments

A few guiding principles emerge as we focus on sustainability. Today:

  • context and direction (who/why) are more valuable than content and process (what/how to);
  • learning (and unlearning) is more useful than knowing;
  • principles are more worthwhile than goals;
  • awareness must inform action;
  • intentional presence accomplishes more than multitasking;
  • commitment sustains more than incentives;
  • culture is more vital than strategy;
  • discerning context reveals a deeper understanding than knowing content; and,
  • practice transforms culture more than knowledge or study;

And, to be clear, scaling and technologies are goals or strategy, not principles or values.

When viewed through the lens of the human experience, these guiding principles reframe our notion of business and commercial enterprise. Moreover, as professionals who will deliver human services and interventions, we will be tasked with questioning our role in the current system.

As our firm moves into its third phase and decade, the following fundamental questions will guide us:

1 – How can we better understand and begin to dissolve the forces, conditions, and causes that isolate us and socialize us as reactive, competitive, and fragmented?

2 – How can we better prepare adults for a cycle of development to include both learning and unlearning?

3 – How can we organize culture around equity and dignity as guiding principles that inform conventions such as strategy, profit, and scaling?

4 – How can we create a culture of practice that integrates both knowledge and wisdom?

20 Years of Leaps

In a word, these last two decades have been unpredictable.

This period may mark the most disruptive 20 years for technological change in human history. One study revealed that we absorb 34 Gb of info a day, and a 2011 piece stated that we each digest more than 174 newspapers per day.

Twenty years ago, my landline and slow AOL served as my primary connections. Today, my cell phone serves as a source of computing. I deliver services to clients internationally via a video platform, and we just delivered an immersive, deep listening certificate program, all delivered online.

Where this will lead us is hard to say, but our focus is clear: integrating Eastern wisdom practices with Western learning methods to support the human side of change. We owe any clarity and direction to our focus on research, our evolving practices, and our growing community of learners.

Reading Time: 9 min. Digest Time: 14 min


tony-zampella-headshot

Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.

 


The Dignity of Being Human

We all possess dignity. Does that sound odd or even doubtful?

The inherent dignity of being human is often overlooked, as we reduce dignity to feelings of respect, admiration, or adoration.

While such traits may be useful and even necessary in some situations, but dignity is more than a trait. It is a fundamental characteristic of being a human being.

With our current preoccupation with internet connections, social media postings, “likes,” and emojis, society tends to reward image and impressions. This finds us focusing on our appearance and the impression that we leave.

Such concerns work to strip away our own dignity. In doing so, we diminish our humanity—dismissing ourselves and each other as dignified beings.

What’s important now is less about the honor and wisdom of being human. We’ve been reduced—in a Pavlovian manner—to seeking instant gratification and succumbing to peer pressure, the effect of which has us feeling fragmented and isolated, having lost all sense of higher self.

Definitions and Distinctions

To reclaim our dignity, we must examine some distinctions for clarifying terms we may conflate with dignity.

Dignity comes from the Latin word dignitas, meaning “to be worthy.”

The View: All people have the right to be recognized for their inherent humanity and treated justly. Dignity is a given. Dignity identifies a worthy, high, and honorable condition as part of being human. You have dignity just as you breathe and experience things. No one can take your dignity away from you without your participation, and you cannot diminish it in another.

Respect comes from the Latin word respectus, meaning “to look back at.”

The View: Respect implies a review of what a person has seen or experienced; this individual is held in esteem because of their abilities, qualities, or achievements. Respect is earned. You are respected by others for what you achieve and experience and how you handle yourself as you achieve accomplishments.

Admiration comes from the Latin word mir, meaning “to wonder.”

The View: Unlike respect, in which you hold a person in high esteem for their behaviors/abilities/actions with your own, to admire is to hold one in wonder, to marvel, and to place those behaviors/abilities/actions above your own.

Polite(ness) comes from the Latin word politus, meaning “polished, or made smooth.”

The View: Our concern here leans into courtesy and etiquette toward others. This is the essence of politeness, or focusing on how you present yourself in front of others.

Much of our confusion today seems to center around dignity and respect, which I will explore further to offer a deeper understanding of dignity.

Confusing Notions of Respect

In today’s culture, respect seems to be a catchall of standards and behaviors. We assess someone as respectable or respectful in an admiring way. This implies the viewpoint or ideal of the observer, elevating that view as deserving of respect.

  • Put another way, dignity is akin to honorableness, a quality of the person being elevated.
  • Respect is a viewpoint, a quality of the person doing the elevating.
  • Self-respect, or being good to, taking care of, being truthful with, and not denigrating yourself, can be seen as dignified.

People have dignity regardless of whether they are respected by others. It can be difficult to respect a person of little dignity.

Respect acknowledges behaviors, attributes, and experiences, while dignity teaches the importance of honor and humanity.

Dignity and respect may seem like the same thing; however, important distinctions must be made—if for no other reason than to cultivate our capacity for dignity in granting humanity. 

Granting Humanity

So, if dignity is inherent to honoring our humanity, why do we fail to recognize this in people we don’t respect?

Dignity grants the existence of humanity. What it means to be human is experienced in our being with one another. Being with all of humanity allows for humanness in each of us and invites us to expand our perspectives of being human.

From an ontological standpoint, dignity is as necessary to being a human as the body. If we ignore our body for too long (even in terms of basic hygiene), it will no longer work for us. Yet, we disregard our dignity regularly.

From a Buddhist perspective, people merit decent treatment because they possess human dignity, a feeling of inherent worth that is theirs due to the simple fact that they’re human. We need no notion of a fixed self to honor a common humanity; hopes, dreams, aspirations, and fears, which all people have, are part of our presence in this life.

Tapping into this common humanity, often via self-compassion, invites access to dignity.

Loss of Dignity: Being Indignant

Upholding our dignity is as challenging as caring for our body. Much like fasting may cleanse us to a state of wellness, the willingness to be indignant helps to restore our dignity. We lose ourselves without the willingness to express moral outrage.

In recent news, Ukraine has been discussed frequently. In 2014, the Ukrainian people led a demonstration called the Revolution of Dignity, which found them reaffirming their national honor and inherent worth.

The Ukrainians named this demonstration as such for that very reason: to tell the world broadly and remind Russia specifically of their inherent worth. With this action, Ukraine had little concern about whether Russia respected them; that is a different question entirely and perhaps not worth taking to the streets over.

To many, these actions may not have been considered respectable. Still, the Ukrainian people were willing to be indignant to reclaim their dignity.

Icons such as Colin Kaepernick today, and Muhammad Ali decades ago, have become despised by some. Yet, these individuals’ actions only revealed indignance toward undignified policies and practices. They reclaimed dignity, reaching beyond their own desires; they were willing to risk their respect for an idea, or a nation.

 

Loss and Restoration of Dignity

As humans, dignity is as critical to our being as breathing, nourishment, and love.

Losing our dignity, often through a self-betrayal, is not only crushing to our sense of self but can also find us unable to observe dignity in others. We are no longer present to our humanity.

Paraphrasing scholar and author Fernando Flores’ words regarding our own dignity,

As human beings, we are concerned that our actions and possibilities are valuable and come from our own integrity—that we act consistently within our own declarations of standards for action.

Practicing dignity requires taking time to reflect on it—to notice our consumption, conversations, or concerns that may strip us of our dignity. To notice where we may betray ourselves. Much of this can begin with the following dignity ritual:

  1. Create time/space for contemplation, for reflecting on and being with our common humanity.
  2. Declare principles and/or standards to live up to.
  3. Declare practices that manifest principles in action via as-lived experiences.
  4. Notice and learn to renounce any temptations that may violate your declared principles or standards.
  5. Acknowledge and resolve any conflicts between your principles and your actions.
  6. Embrace learning that supports the integration of your stated principles with your words and actions.

As we enter the holiday season each year, our principles become even more important and valuable. Sending a card with a heartfelt expression of gratitude can support and reclaim much of the dignity that is the promise of this season.

Reading Time: 9 min. Digest Time: 14 min


tony-zampella-headshot

Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.

 


Brave Spaces or Safe Spaces to Support (un)Learning?

Safe Spaces. Seems people support or deride them. But what purpose do they serve, and for whom?

Generally, safe spaces offer sanctuary from risk, injury, and adversity—often resulting in polite spaces that avoid controversy and contradiction.

In some academic settings, safe spaces provide important refuge for isolated groups during significant learning years.

In business, however—where the notion of power must be mitigated and navigated—we require brave spaces, and for a very different reason.

The Perfect Team

Google spent two years investigating what makes a team successful.

Google’s initial hypothesis suggested that building the best possible team means simply compiling the best people—the best experts, engineers, MBAs, and Ph.D.’s.

After studying 180 Google teams, conducting 200+ interviews, and analyzing over 250 different team attributes, to their surprise, Google was unable to reduce the “dream team” gene to any one formula or algorithm.

According to Julia Rozovsky, Google’s people analytics manager, “We were dead wrong.”

Rozovsky and her colleagues continually came across psychology and sociology research that had focused on “group norms”— the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how teams function together.

Google discovered five qualities that matter. The first four are: 

  1. Dependability. Team members accomplish things on time and meet expectations.
  2. Structure and clarity. High-performing teams have clear goals and well-defined roles.
  3. Meaning. The work is personally significant to each member.
  4. Impact. The group believes their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good.

The Fifth Quality: Psychological Safety.

Google also discovered that full participation depends on a fifth quality, termed psychological safety, in which everyone can take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. A culture in which managers create safe zones so employees can let their guard down. That’s psychological safety.

The irony is that group norms informed by expertise, knowledge, and high education levels can actually undermine psychological safety. People feel controlled, micromanaged, judged, and not safe to question, learn, and grow.

Ask yourself, regarding group norms marked by power, fear, micromanagement, and control:

  • Can people take risks? Challenge managers and supervisors? Offer input that isn’t solicited?
  • Can people question leadership without being shut down? Are some questions allowed and not others?
  • Are these group norms meant for a single culture, color, or sex? Can they be questioned, and if so, by whom?

Google posited psychological safety as necessary to “engineering” successful teams.

Safety for Whom?

Now, we come back to safety.

What if all of this focus on safety is misplaced? What about teams that are informed by diverse experiences, thinking, and views?

What if safety is simply another way to comfort the comfortable and preserve the status quo? Or what if it conceals real issues and suppresses differences?

Most importantly, this kind of “safety” begins to feel like groupthink. It keeps those in power from being questioned, encouraging different views, receiving feedback, or risk-taking.

So then, what do we mean by “safe” in a business context?

  • One definition involves entitlement to comfort without conflict.
  • Another involves being secure in one’s position to speak their mind.

Safety as comfort preserves the status quo and encourages groupthink.

  • Safety protects those in power and the dominant group to prevent raising “uncomfortable” issues.
  • Safety offers comfort for those in power. We cannot speak truth to power or question the status quo. We can only share views that are comfortable for those in leadership.
  • Safety undermines true innovation, which begins at the margins. What seems odd or awkward today becomes tomorrow’s new products and services.

Safety as secure in our position to speak our mind involves brave spaces.

Secure in our well-being, we are encouraged to speak our mind. With practice, we learn to:

  • listen to different experiences, ideas, and ways of thinking;
  • handle questions, feedback, and opposing views;
  • consider new ideas; and
  • become agile and nimble, able to surface and question outmoded assumptions and beliefs.

Power and Fear

Unlike safe spaces, brave spaces dissolve and address the power and fear that can cripple team participation.

Power typically involves five dimensions:

  • Legitimate power: position of authority
  • Expert power: acquiring expertise and knowledge,
  • Coercive power: exerting force and control,
  • Reward power: offering incentives or reinforcement, and
  • Referent power: gaining approval through loyalty and admiration.

Power in teams is often used to control agendas, hoard resources, predict situations, prevent discomfort, or protect self-interests. This can lead to hostile work environments.

Fear typically comes from some perceived threat, such as loss of power and loss of self.

We can explain fear by how we perceive threats. Research by Carol Dweck on growth and fixed mindsets and Chris Argyris on Defensive Reasoning reveal how experts and smart people refuse to grow, change and learn.

Dweck found that children with fixed mindsets would cheat, lie, and give up just to preserve their “all-knowing” identity.

Argyris defines a “universal human tendency to design one’s actions consistently according to four basic values: 1) To remain in unilateral control; 2) to maximize ‘winning’ and minimize ‘losing’; 3) to suppress negative feelings; and, 4) to be as ‘rational’ as possible—by which people mean defining clear objectives and evaluating their behavior in terms of whether or not they have achieved them.”

These values serve to “avoid embarrassment or threat, feeling vulnerable or incompetent.”

Shifting to Dweck’s growth mindset is one solution, but it’s not easy. It takes time to surface and evolve fixed beliefs, assumptions, and expectations about life, success, change, and leadership.

This brings us back to the group norms we internalize that often define how we operate in teams. Are these norms based on being challenged to grow and embrace change or preserving status, power, and identity?

Principles for Brave Spaces

In times of volatile change, complexity, and integrating diverse cultures and experiences, those in power often conflate their role with their ideas and expectations of comfort. They exact control to suppress dissenting voices and differences.

Their attempt to control behavior and resources often overlooks the very innovation they wish to harness.

To combat this, they would do well to build resilience and openness to opposing viewpoints, challenging questions, and critical feedback.

Brave spaces incorporate these principles to build such resilience:

Openness and Diversity. Embrace diversity in all its forms to include group identities and cognitive diversity. Beyond cultural fit, hire people who promote cultural fitness.

Cognitive Friction. Allow friction and tensions from diverse experiences, thinking, and views to surface multiple viewpoints.

Intellectual Humility. Encourage leaders to embrace their vulnerabilities and do not expect them to know everything or to have all the answers.

Unlearning Worldviews: Creating Brave Spaces

Such resilience begins with unlearning long-held attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs—worldviews that shape group norms.

Based on the research of oppressive and hostile organizational cultures, which also impede growth and learning, these five worldviews are ripe for unlearning.

1 – Fear of Open Conflict.

Unlearn: We equate raising difficult issues with being impolite, rude, or out of line. Those with power fear losing control. They are scared of conflict and will deny or ignore it.

Brave spaces receive concerns openly, encouraging feedback and raising difficult issues. Avoid prescribing “acceptable” ways to raise difficult issues. Acknowledge those who surface difficult issues.

Practice: Avoid making the issue about yourself rather than the topic. Own both your intention and your impact.

2 – Hoarding Power.

Unlearn: Power is seen as limited—a zero-sum game—with no value in sharing it. Those with power personalize change; they feel threatened by change, viewing it as a reflection on their leadership. Loss of power is a loss of self.

Brave spaces appreciate questions. Leaders share power with others to cultivate trust and advance their goals and efforts. They appreciate that change is inevitable and understand that challenging questions can be healthy and productive (to leadership).

Practice: Develop the ability to live in the question. Don’t become attached to immediate answers or solutions. Avoid the need to always be certain, in charge, or in control.

3 – My View or No View.

Unlearn the attitude that yours is the one objective view of reality. When we are unwilling to listen to other views, people will shut down or merely agree with those in power. This leads to groupthink.

Brave spaces encourage opposing viewpoints. Realize that there isn’t one objective worldview; everybody has a worldview that affects the way they understand things.

Practice: Sit in discomfort when people express themselves in ways that are not familiar to you. Assume that everybody has a valid point and your job is to understand that point.

4 – Perfectionism.

Unlearn the attitude that mistakes should not exist—that it is impossible to learn from mistakes. We often confuse making a mistake or doing wrong with being a mistake or being wrong. Our concern with our “proper” image finds us controlling situations and hiding problems.

Brave spaces shift from controlling to learning. We cultivate learning cultures of practice, not perfection, where mistakes are inevitable, an expected part of uncertainty. We separate our views and ideas from our identities.

Practice: Become interested in the best ideas, not the best look or image. Frame mistakes as learning opportunities that cultivate humility.

5 – Intellectual Overconfidence.

Unlearn the belief that those with authority must know best. We all overestimate how much we know. Knowledge today has a half-life of 5–7 years. Overconfidence can lead to moral superiority, and we become susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect, and confirmation bias.

Brave spaces understand that knowledge evolves, so we invite everyone to examine their beliefs and surface their assumptions. Knowing is not as important as learning.

Practice: Become comfortable with uncertainty and share vulnerabilities that encourage more questions than answers.

Finally

Brave spaces include Google’s criteria of dependability, structure, meaning, and impact as being necessary for performance.

Brave spaces also expand psychological safety to encourage diversity and inclusion for people to speak up, express alternative viewpoints, challenge the status quo, and acknowledge issues in the power structure without fearing punishment.

Only brave spaces can marry performance and inclusion to create belonging.

Reading Time: 11 min. Digest Time: 17 min

Please view these related blogs to complement this post:


tony-zampella-headshot

Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.

 


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—ERIC HOFFER

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