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Thought Thursdays
Understand the fear and anxiety paradox in learning

jane Robertson web image.jpgIf you are not failing, you are not innovating enough – Elon Musk

This week I spent time reflecting on an interview I had with a participant who had recently completed a management development programme that included an action learning component. He mentioned to me that his biggest regret was that he and his team ‘set the bar’ so low that they did not experience the full benefit of action learning. This got me thinking … Why did this action learning team have such low expectations of themselves? The team was a group of senior managers who are well qualified and could make an impact in their organisations, but they never got out of the starting blocks. This was fascinating to me, because I realised that if you don’t really start then you can’t really fail. 

Starting a management development programme can cause anxiety in many participants. This anxiety can prevent participants from achieving their personal and company goals, as in the case mentioned above. Fear of failing, fear of not reaching one’s potential, fear of not being good enough or being inadequate compared to one’s peers are all reasons for feeling anxious. 

Was the experience of this participant and his team unique or is that what most participants really feel? In Deloitte’s 2014 Global Human Capital Trends report it was recognised that employees were feeling “overwhelmed”. Subsequently, in the 2015 Global Human Capital Trend report it was acknowledged that there is a need to simplify work and help employees to focus and relieve stress. Understanding these trends can help action learning coaches, to help participants while working in action learning groups.

Action learning is about finding innovative solutions to ‘wicked’ problems in the workplace. The joy of action learning is that it is not only about solving complex workplace problems by harnessing the wisdom of a community, but it also provides the team members with an opportunity to gain a deeper level of learning. The participants are responsible for one another's learning as well as their own. Thus, the success of one participant helps other participants to be successful. 

Can team members learn if they are feeling stressed and anxious? Herein lies the paradox for those of us involved in working with action learning teams: In order for learning to take place, there needs to be a certain amount of eustress (good stress).

The action learning coach has the power to coerce individuals in the team to work on a business problem, but this may hamper learning. Action learning has two components: ACTION and LEARNING. The power of action learning lies in the complex relationship between the two, but sometimes it is difficult for participants to understand how one impacts on the other in practice. Action does not necessarily lead to learning. Both of these constructs – action and learning – need to occur in the action learning design. Revans​(1), the father of action learning, argued that “there can be no learning without action and no (sober and deliberate) action without learning”. 

Action learning allows participants greater flexibility in the way they control their learning progression based on the guidance of the action learning coach. As an action learning coach, I believe that the participants are the experts in terms of their learning, not me. I believe they are able to access answers to their wicked problem – they just need time to reflect, to be exposed to constructive questioning and to be unfettered by any judgment from me, so that they can think for themselves. Reflection allows participants the opportunity to express their discomfort. In addition, reflection helps to connect the action and learning constructs, as it involves both cognitive and emotional aspects which enable participants to be free of limiting mindsets. The only learning outcome should be to learn with and from each other, and I can help by creating an environment where it is safe to challenge and learn. 

Amy Edmondson introduced the notion of team psychological safety, where the collective belief becomes one of safety regarding interpersonal risk taking.  If action learning coaches can help participants feel comfortable with the paradox of not making the environment too safe, but at the same time helping participants to deal with the anxiety of action learning, then action learning teams will have real potential in addressing the wicked problems back in the workplace and perhaps the full benefit of the learning will be gained as the ‘bar will be set’ higher.

(1) Revans, R. 1998. ABC of Action Learning. London: Lemos & Crane.​

Jane Robertson.jpg

Jane Robertson is the executive director of the Greenfields Learning Academy and she is a faculty member of USB-ED. Her areas of specialisation are people management, human capital management, management development, employee engagement and action learning.

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