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Article No.: 16-1, January 1, 2016

Article Title: Developing and Fostering an Environment for Learning Agility

Author: Linda Gravett, Ph.D. and Sheri Caldwell, Ph.D.

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As a leader in your organization, your philosophy on innovation and creativity is a major driver of the company’s ability to develop and foster learning agility across employees.  How do you provide feedback to employees?  Is it constructive (concrete, specific and actionable) or destructive (vague, incomplete, un-timely or absent)?  Do you allow for mistakes and for people to learn from those mistakes?  Are there immediate feedback loops to enhance learning from education and experience?  Do you explore patterns in organizational failures across the company in order to minimize barriers to success?  These are all important questions to ask in order to establish if you’re unsure of your philosophy and approach towards fostering a workplace that ensures learning agility or to redirect if you already know your philosophy but want to improve.
To a large extent, employees can be self-empowered innovators, if we allow them the latitude to be curious, to question the efficacy of organizational “sacred cows,” and to pursue (within reason) dreams of glory.  Not every employee will want or need this type of workplace environment.  Some may be content to focus solely on their job using techniques or tools that don’t change on a constant basis.  These employees are often thought of as “Steady Eddies” and your organization may have a place for this type of employee; however, we encourage you to limit the number of people with this mindset and encourage employees’ quest for “building a better mousetrap” and heightening their self-awareness.  This, in turn, will foster learning agility, and even the “Steady Eddies” may gain a new found awareness and increased motivation to improve surrounded by others with in their workplace with a learning agile mindset.
We have found that employee experiences form an environment that fosters learning agility, and the organization’s leadership can take a proactive role in creating intentional, positive employee experiences. To be effective, these experiences should enable employees to achieve their goals and succeed in their careers.  That doesn’t mean that employees won’t make mistakes along the way and struggle with some assignments; that’s part of the process for enhancing learning agility.  What it does mean is that if a plan towards a goal isn’t working, these employees won’t give up.  Instead, they will adjust their plan, but never their goal.  For example, an employee at one of Sheri’s former employers had barely started with the company when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was not eligible for family medical leave, and she didn’t yet have a week of accumulated paid time off (PTO). Her daughter was getting married, and her last wish was that she’d be alive to attend the wedding. Her co-workers approached Sheri offering to donate their accrued vacation time. Sheri approached the CFO to see if that was possible, but he said no because the value of each person’s PTO would be different.

Sheri created some scenarios to show how the company would actually save money if the higher-paid employees would donate their vacation time to lower-paid employees in need. The CFO thought it was too complicated and there were no guarantees of who would donate and how they’d account for any discrepancies in pay differences for the giver and the receiver. Finally, Sheri approached the president who said he liked the leave donation idea and to work out something.

Instead of worrying about the value of each person’s PTO, an hour-for-hour calculation was used, in which the leave was paid at the receiving employee’s wage. In this example, the terminally ill employee was at a lower level within the organization, so using this calculation method saved the company money. The employees who were able to donate were grateful to be able to extend their co-worker’s livelihood and to help her attend her daughter’s wedding. The employee died shortly after the wedding, but employees who donated leave time felt they had made a real difference.

This is an example of where the goal of getting a PTO donation program wasn’t adjusted, but the plan for obtaining such a program was modified.  This is an important example too because of the impact to the culture of an organization.  In Sheri’s book, Got A Solution, it was discussed how some organizations have even extended these internal leave donation programs in response to recent tragedies, such as Hurricane Sandy. In essence, this is a “charitable” PTO donation program where employees may donate the value of their unused or unwanted PTO to a charitable organization. The employer typically pays the organization cash equal to the value of the donated PTO, which the donating employee must generally recognize as taxable compensation income subject to income tax and FICA withholding. Because the value of the PTO is donated to a charitable organization, the donor employee is then allowed a charitable contribution deduction. The employer is allowed a deduction for the value of the donation as compensation expense. In certain situations, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has even allowed employees to avoid recognizing the value of PTO donated to a charitable organization as compensation income. [i](Got A Solution? HR Approaches to 5 Common and Persistent Business Problems, Dwyer & Caldwell 2014)
Employees have to take some ownership of fostering an environment that promotes learning agility, just as in the above example where they really wanted to help another co-worker.  To promote learning agility, they need to be self-aware regarding their developmental needs and possess a willingness to pursue opportunities to learn.  They need to proactively seek out learning opportunities, especially those outside their comfort zone.  They need to search for mentors and coaches who will expect them to stretch their skill set and leverage their talents.  All of these steps help build their capacity for lifelong learning.  In her book, Mindset, Dr. Carol Dweck calls this capacity the “growth mindset” [ii](Dweck, 2006).

Many organizations utilize Individual Development Plans (IDP’s) so that employees get to document their developmental needs and plans for obtaining learning opportunities to build on their strengths and to enhance their areas for improvement. This allows employees to proactively be in charge of their own careers.  For example, being a current practitioner in the field of HR, employees often come to Sheri to discuss how their boss isn’t providing them with growth assignments and/or training opportunities.  I like to remind them that it is a two-way street and they can just as easily approach their boss indicating where they see themselves in 1, 3 or 5 years and what they think is necessary to get there.  Many times a job-based assignment can be a key learning opportunity, and a boss with many direct reports may not have an abundance of ideas for each employee to improve, so it may be a welcome dialogue for the employee to approach the boss with such ideas.  Who knows better than the employee him/herself what the employee wants to do next and what the preferred path is for getting there.

[i] Dale Dwyer & Sheri Caldwell, (2014). “Got a Solution?: HR Approaches to 5 Common and Persistent Business Problems”. Society for Human Resources Management.
[ii] Dr. Carol Dweck, (2006). “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”. Pg. 7, Ballantine Books, NY, NY.

If you have any questions or need more information about this article, please complete our Contact Form, or contact Dr. Gravett by telephone at 513-753-8870.

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