We have all been teachers and learners in our lives. Based on your experience, what would you say are some pre-requisites for learning, regardless of whether we're learning to ride a bike or learning to run a company?
I ask this question in leadership development and employee training workshops, and get some excellent responses, such as:
- the ability to listen
- willingness to practice (as learning "about" is not the same as learning "to do")
- trusting the teacher
- an ability to connect the learning to future action
- to be motivated
- to be open-minded (my favorite)
... I agree with all these, and I'd like to offer one more that is a close cousin of open-mindedness: the willingness and ability of the learner to declare "I don't know."
Think about it - this declaration isn't a passive description of what's going on nearly as much as it creates something... and what it creates is a context or an opening for learning. Everything else being the same - same teacher, same subject matter, same physical environment - when the learner declares "I don't know," something is immediately different, and learning is much more likely.
We know this already - have you ever tried to teach someone something when the learner thought they already knew it? How much learning takes place? Not much!
When the learner says "I don't know," a new context has been created. It's not physical, but it's real. And it's created in language. I invite you to consider two ways that "I don't know" is important - one corporate, one personal.
On the corporate side, the question is this: How do you treat people in your company who say "I don't know?" Is it ok, in a public space, for someone to answer an inquiry with "I don't know." We are not talking here about a situation in which a person promised to do something previously, and now the deadline is upon us etc... no, here, we are only pointing to the first time it becomes apparent... to the first time the inquiry is made. Because as a leader, if one of your desired Results is a sustainable culture of adaptability, flexibility and innovation, and you slap people's hands or embarrass them when they say "I don't know"... I predict you'll have a difficult time creating that culture.
On the personal side, the question is this: At your age and level in the company, do you give yourself permission to be a beginner at anything? Because you declare beginnerhood into being... by your willingness and ability to make this declaration.
Think about it... as you get promoted further and further away from the "front lines," your ability to know the specific content of what's going on necessarily decreases. You simply can't know - at a detailed level - as much about certain things as those you are leading, so being comfortable with not knowing is key.
But what you DO need to know is how to listen... how to make effective requests... how to create and sustain a culture of commitment and accountability... how to create and cultivate mutually-beneficial relationships, inside and outside of the organization. I invite you to create a personal context of learning for yourself and within your entire organization by paying attention to how you and others use the powerful declaration - "I don't know."