Ask Addi P.: How can we Develop a Culture of Learning?

ask addi p creating a company culture

Encouraging inexperienced employees to ask questions can be important to workplace culture.

Dear Addi P.,

Some in my organization have recently sensed that junior employees are afraid to ask questions, at the risk of appearing to not know how to do something. It has led to some avoidable mistakes. How can we create a culture where inquisitiveness and learning are valued over being (or trying to appear) right?

— Curious in Cleveland

Dear Curious,

Creating a company culture is difficult, but it's a great sign that people in your organization have identified a specific set of behaviors that you want to encourage. It's a great, positive goal to have with a strong and very obvious connection to improved business performance. So why would something so clear and beneficial be hard to put into practice?

Somewhere along the line, your culture settled into the way it is today. The people within your organization have adapted to that status quo. They are deeply vested in it and are unlikely to see it as culture at all. Making those assumptions visible to an embedded employee is like trying to explain water to a fish.

It's going to take a lot of questions, a lot of listening, and some judicious reading between the lines to understand the real factors that support the current culture. Are question-askers repressed in some ways? Is bravado and false confidence rewarded? Are there leaders in your organization modeling those attributes, or hiring and promoting employees with them?

It's a Big Leap out of the Fishbowl

Creating a company culture is as much about leaving the old behind as it is about moving to something different. Energized and often optimistic senior leaders tend to minimize the pull of the past. Some questions to ask when committing to culture change:

  • Does the culture we are seeking already exist in pockets of the organization? It's best to build on existing success. If you can find small groups of employees who are approximating your desired behaviors, make use of it. What's working with those groups that you can apply in other places? Interview those managers and leaders to capture best practices. Make them champions to help you carry those behaviors forward.
  • Can we define the desired behaviors? Without measurables, progress towards culture change will remain nebulous. You won't be able to clearly define areas for improvement, identify progress or celebrate success.

What will it look like when junior employees start asking questions and providing feedback? Start with something low-risk like a health and wellness initiative. Be specific with managers that you want them to openly encourage feedback and commit to acting on the best ideas. Or turn things around and ask managers to identify an area where they could ask their junior employees for help in order to model desired behavior.

How will you measure and monitor progress? Engage managers in the task and ask them to send feedback your way. Too often, organizations ask managers to cascade information without asking them to roll their feedback and findings back to the original requestors. If managers are asked to find and share good examples of their teams asking for help and providing feedback, it will start to happen.

How will you celebrate that progress to keep up the positive momentum? Change is often initiated by pain, but it is sustained by positive feelings. When people show desired behaviors, promote it to others. Individuals who adapt well should be seen as role models and encouraged to engage others.

  • Are we willing to listen? It would be ironic to start an effort designed to get more feedback from junior employees by telling them from the top down that they should do so. The easiest way to convince other people to change is to let them think it was their idea to do it. That starts with listening. Present employees with the same challenges that you perceive, and you will likely be pleasantly surprised at how many people will arrive at the same conclusions you do. The difference is, it was their initiative, their idea.
  • Can we honestly acknowledge past failures and minor setbacks? Have their been similar efforts in the past that did not succeed or simply faded away without much impact? If so, can we acknowledge them and be clear about what will make this effort different?
  • Can we seed this into daily actions and interactions? The more you integrate the desired changes into employees' daily activity, the more likely they are to to hold on to it and apply it. Too many change efforts begin with a kickoff and then a month of silence. Over time, people will learn to ignore your kickoffs, making future change efforts even harder to implement.

Successfully creating a company culture is a massive undertaking; you can dedicate your life to this topic and never reach the full depths of everything you need to know. But with these tips as a starting point, you will be off to a strong start.