Women self-learning challenge

How leaders create self-learning cultures

We launched this year with a three-part series on self-leadership. In part one, we looked at how embracing self-leadership could help each of us make 2024 a year of purposeful growth. Last month’s instalment focused on the ‘inner game’ of self-leadership: the capacity for self-awareness and the skill of self-regulation.

This month, we conclude the series by delving into the third vital aspect of self-leadership: self-learning. We look at different mindsets, which are vital to learning, and explore strategies for fostering self-learning cultures in your team and organisation.

Cara McCarthy and Rose Padfield

Mindset: the key to unlocking self-learning

In the opening article in this series, we offered a simple definition of self-learning: taking the initiative to diagnose the gaps in your skills, capabilities and motivations, identifying where you need to develop and grow and the resources you require to take you there.

In my experience of coaching and advising leaders and organisations, the factor exerting the greatest impact on a person’s learning outcomes is their mindset.

Let’s first explore the interplay between three types of mindset: growth mindset, learner’s mindset and the concept of the beginner’s mind.

Growth mindset

The idea of the growth mindset comes from work carried out by Stanford University psychologist Dr Carol Dweck and published in her original book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Dweck’s influential research shows that the most successful individuals are not necessarily the most intelligent, talented, or educated. Rather, it is their growth mindset that sets them apart.

Approaching life with a growth mindset means you believe that, through dedication and effort, you can overcome life’s challenges and grow your innate abilities. You choose to learn from setback and failure, rather than feel defeated. You increase your effort and persist in your endeavours until you achieve your goals.

Research by the NeuroLeadership Institute shows that leaders should not only focus on developing their own growth mindset, but on cultivating a collective growth mindset so the whole organisation benefits.

Its research found that in the most successful organisations, collaboration, innovation and integrity had become everyday habits. The institute further identified that what gave rise to these norms was a ‘growth mindset culture’.

Learner’s mindset

A person with a learner’s mindset means they will view every new experience as an opportunity to learn. We can see close ties to growth mindset here, because how a person thinks about change, going beyond their zone of expertise or taking risks regarding learning, will naturally affect their learning outcomes.

The key difference to note is that the person with the learner’s mindset considers how conducive the learning environment is to both the learning process and the quality of the outcomes. Organisations, leaders and managers play a crucial role in creating and sustaining learning environments.

Five questions to assess the health of your learning environment

Reflecting on your organisation or team, ask yourself:

  1. How supportive is the environment to learning and what could make it better?
  2. Have my team and I talked about our learning needs (including mine) and how we could individually and collectively accommodate these?
  3. Can team members take the time they need to learn in the best way for that skill or for their personal learning style?
  4. How comfortable am I with people taking an innovative approach, putting their learning into action, and potentially failing?
  5. Is there a constructive feedback culture where they can seek and receive quality feedback, regardless of whether they succeed or fail?

Beginner’s mind

The concept of a beginner’s mind comes from the word shoshin in Zen Buddhism and was popularised by the Zen monk, Shunryu Suzuki. It means approaching things with “an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions, just as a beginner would. The practice of shoshin acts as a counter to an inflated ego, or hubris, and the closed-mindedness that is often associated with thinking of oneself as an expert”.

As leaders, we rely on having expertise. Being known for your subject matter knowledge, complex problem-solving ability, or comfort with making tough decisions may be a significant part of your ‘brand’ or identity.

In what areas could it serve you to approach things with a beginner’s mind?

What could happen if you were to approach a relationship issue with a beginner’s mind – perhaps regarding a new boss about whom you’ve formed strong assumptions, or a team member with whom you’ve been having some ongoing challenges?

What might happen if you were to try not to bring to the interaction any preconceived ideas or even previous experiences, but simply stay open to noticing, hearing and receiving that person with curiosity and empathy?

Is it possible you might see, experience or think something new that might help you to find a fresh way forward?

Cognitive flexibility and navigating polarities: crucial self-learning skills

Embracing a beginner’s mind and adopting a growth mindset approach will also improve one’s cognitive flexibility – the capacity to ‘switch’ your brain from one situation to another.

The greater one’s cognitive flexibility, the better one’s ability to juggle multiple ideas, respond to new information, access creative solutions and adapt to the unexpected.

This is especially necessary in a world characterised by polarities, whether in the workplace, at home or on the wider world stage.

According to Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis, the authors of the book Navigating Polarities: Using Both/And Thinking to Lead Transformation, polarities are “interdependent, yet seemingly opposite, states that must coexist for success over time”, such as flexibility/structure, people/task and vision/reality.

Polarities create tension and people tend to respond to them with an either/or way of thinking, focusing on the benefits of their preference and often seeing only the negatives of the opposite.

Adopting a both/and mindset in your leadership will improve your flexibility to explore the other side to your perspective or preference and increase your chances of collaborating with others to find a ‘third way’.

To build your empathy muscles and expand your cognitive flexibility, practice both/and thinking by considering how someone else might see or experience an issue or asking yourself ‘what else might be true?’

Other ways to ‘press pause’ on our brains and make room for fresh thinking include interrupting and redirecting our thoughts, going for a short walk in the fresh air, moving rooms to change our surroundings, calling a friend for a short chat or offering to do a coffee round for our colleagues. Even a little pause in thinking can allow space for new perspectives.

Developing cultures of self-learning

Leaders have great influence over the learning culture in their organisations. When leaders consistently demonstrate a self-learning mindset, they will inspire cultures of self-learning.

As people feel increasingly confident to embrace learning opportunities, they will become more open with others about their mistakes, better able to learn from failure and more generous in celebrating successes.

Team leaders can borrow from the ‘agile retrospective’ approach, which asks learning questions as a regular part of team reflection. Being a bit more creative will open up a lot more learning.

Instead of asking ‘what went well?’, ask:

  • What one word would you use to describe this project/last week/sprint?
  • Have you learnt anything new in this project/last week/meeting/sprint?
  • Who have you seen doing something you think everyone should try?
  • What helped you to make your best team contribution?

Instead of asking ‘what didn’t go well?’, ask:

  • What was the most frustrating/stressful/worrying moment of this project/last week/sprint?
  • What’s our weakest link as a team?
  • What opportunities did we miss?
  • Did conflict and tension arise? Why?

Instead of asking ‘what could we do differently?’, ask:

  • Do you think you/we could have handled things in a different way? How?
  • Using hindsight, how would you deal with [X issue]?
  • What’s the smallest thing you could do to make an improvement to [X issue]?
  • If you could change one thing about this team’s working style, what would it be?

Bringing this series to a close

We hope that the ideas we’ve shared in this series have made a difference to your own leadership growth.

If you relate to any of the concepts we’ve explored and would like to work on your self-leadership skills or think more about how to create a culture of learning in your team or organisation, both Cara and Rose are accredited coaches and experienced Organisation Developers. We work with many leaders, teams and organisations to support their effectiveness. Contact us here to find out more.

Try this

Watch Dr Carol Dweck’s TED talk titled The Power of Believing That You Can Improve


Watch The Pygmalion Effect, Growth Mindset, and Learning, featuring Robert Rosenthal for a fascinating study on rats!

Read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Dr Carol Dwek.
Read Navigating Polarities: Using Both/And Thinking to Lead Transformation by Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis.

Related/further reading

If you found this information useful, you might enjoy our related articles:

Next month

We dive into a subject that seven in ten people will experience in their lives – imposter syndrome – and explore its origins and how to deal with it.

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