Creating a strong learning environment

A current client of mine whose leadership team I’m accompanying through a series of workshops has asked me to facilitate a workshop with the theme of ‘How to challenge ourselves to be even better’. This is a high-performing team yet they recognise that to stay ahead they need to continually challenge themselves to improve. It got me thinking about how we learn for high performance. What are the factors that create a strong learning environment that leads to high performance?


  1. Stretch people beyond their comfort zone
  2. Give and seek constructive feedback
  3. Allow for failure
  4. Build observational skills and grow curiosity

Stretch beyond your comfort zone.

This Harvard Business review article by Andy Molinsky  reinforces the need to move out of our comfort zone in order to learn. I especially like Molinsky’s first piece of advice: “Be honest with yourself. When you turned down that opportunity to speak at a big industry conference, was it really because you didn’t have the time, or were you scared to step on a stage and present?”.

A few years ago when I worked at Sony I was asked by the HR Director in our Paris office to come over and deliver a workshop to the French leadership team in French. I speak French quite well but it’s another matter completely to deliver a full 3-day workshop in French. In fact the thought of it filled me with terror. My first reaction was to decline, but my French colleague persisted in encouraging me to give it a go. I did, and what an amazing learning experience it turned out to be.  I just needed that little push, someone who gave me that belief that I was capable of it.We often talk about anxiety being a bad thing, yet the presence of anxiety when we’re about to embark on a new task signals to us (and others) that this is something outside our comfort zone. It’s my strong belief that every manager needs to be considering how to stretch her people beyond what is comfortable so that they learn and grow.

Seek feedback – especially when you’ve failed or made a mistake.

Often others can see more clearly what’s going wrong, but when we fail we can feel ashamed and this can prevent us from seeking feedback. Worse still we won’t admit to ourselves or to others that we’ve made a mistake. Yet the most powerful learning often comes from a failure. As a young trainee consultant, I messed up badly when pitching to a potential client. Worse still, I’d been accompanied that day by our Managing Director who observed the whole sorry story. But her feedback was incredibly insightful. Rather than picking through every element of the presentation, she simply shared with me that she thought I had prepared in the wrong way – over-prepared on content but underprepared on delivery. I needed someone else to point this out to me and subsequently had much better results in future pitches.

Allow for failure and avoid the ‘one right answer’ culture.

Linked to the above point, as leaders we must create environments in which it’s okay to make mistakes and to fail. The key is to encourage people to learn from these failures so that things improve in the future. In her inspiring TED talk Diana Laufenberg considers how to create a learning environment in an age of information surplus. The key, she says, is experiential learning, encouraging people to experiment, play and enquire and not expecting people to always have the right answer.

Build observational skills and grow curiosity

Check out this short article from lifehacker. The extract from it below sums it up for me:

“The more you observe, the more you ask why. The more you ask why, the more you learn. Observing is useful, but the critical thinking that follows is what can help you come up with new ideas and learn more about the world around you”.

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