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Emma Sue Prince



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Learning culture: why we must champion curiosity and cultivate critical thinking


We are living and working in a technologically connected, digital and globalised world. And one of the main career implications of this digital revolution is a shift in demand for human expertise.

There is now a premium on intellectual curiosity and what is being coined as ‘learnability’, the desire and ability to quickly grow and adapt one’s skill set to remain employable. What you know is less relevant than what you may learn, and knowing the answer to questions is less critical than having the ability to ask the right questions in the first place.

Individuals and organisations also need to cultivate fluid thinking – this is about originality, fluency of ideas and active learning.                 

All of this means that organisations need to, more than ever before, focus on building a strong learning culture to drive business impact. However, true learning cultures – meaning a culture that supports an open mind-set, an independent quest for knowledge, and shared learning directed toward the mission and goals of the organisation – are still the exception rather than the norm. 

How can organisations change this?

1. Start with rewarding continuous learning

Strangely enough, performance is highest when we are not formally learning, but organisations still tend to reward based on results and performance. Alongside this training budgets are being cut all the time, as is the amount of time employees can spend in a training environment.

Organisations therefore need to encourage and reward independent informal learning and recognise the value of it.

Rewarding curiosity is not just about praising and promoting those who display an effort to learn and develop. It’s also about creating a climate that nurtures critical and fluid thinking and the sharing of ideas, and encourages challenging authority and speaking up, even if it means creating discord. This is particularly important if an organisation is hoping for innovative and fresh ideas.

2. Give meaningful and constructive feedback

Because feedback and appraisals tend to focus on strengths, and any flaws are redefined as ‘opportunities for growth’ or ‘areas to develop’, it’s easy to ignore the value of negative feedback. But it’s really hard to improve on anything if you are unaware of your own limitations or are satisfied with your potential.

We don’t like having difficult conversations so inevitably managers tend to provide more positive than negative feedback. This is particularly problematic when it comes to curiosity and learning, since the best way to trigger curiosity is to highlight a knowledge gap – that is, making people aware of what they don’t know, especially if that makes them feel uncomfortable.

However, negative feedback must be provided in a constructive and delicate way because people are naturally less receptive of it than of praise and appreciation. Another key way to build self-awareness is to encourage experiential learning as much as possible, as this kind of learning highlights our default behaviours and heightens self-awareness.

3. Lead by example

If you are leading or managing others and hoping to build a true learning culture than you absolutely HAVE to start with yourself! What you routinely do has a strong influence on others’ behaviours.

If you want to nurture curiosity and continuous learning then you need to be curious and continuously learning yourself. If you want others to read, then read and make sure others are aware of what you are reading or use what you are reading to spark conversations and discussions.

If you want your employees to take on novel and challenging tasks, then take on novel and challenging tasks yourself. For example, learn a new skill, volunteer to work on something unrelated to your main job, or take on tasks outside your comfort zone even if you are not good at it – you will be able to show that with a bit of curiosity and discipline you can get better, and this should inspire others.

4. Recruit curious people

We often focus on training over recruiting the right people in the first place. When you recruit well there’s less need for training and development and any that is done is much more effective.

Learning and curiosity are the same – if an organisation takes on people who are naturally curious then they will be willing to learn. So why not introduce personality assessments that measure openness to new experience, tolerance of ambiguity, critical thinking and curiosity as part of an organisation’s recruitment strategy?

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Emma Sue Prince


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