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There’s a compelling argument that says forced learning and training programmes that come from the top-down just don’t work. In order to get employee buy-in, organisations need to drive cultural change by encouraging people to take control of learning at a grass-roots level.

So how do you create a bottom-up learning culture that enables your people to grow? Here’s three things the UK’s most influential culture leaders discussed at two learning culture breakfasts we recently hosted. These insights and ideas were curated from senior leaders from, among others, among others, L’Oreal, HSBC, VBS, Multiplex, Aon, and Arcadia.

Embed learning as an everyday activity

Research on habit change by BJ Fogg and Charles Duhigg shows that habit change occurs when there are triggers that prompt a routine or behaviour and that it is rewarding and easy such that people repeat it and it becomes automatic. Based on this, for a learning culture to stick it needs to be both valuable and easy.

Realistically, people don’t actually have that much time to learn each day, so make it easy for them to learn at the right time for them. And make content relevant, purposeful and digestible in a few minutes to create real value.

If I go into a platform and find 1-2 actionable things I can do this week that will make me more effective, suddenly taking the time to learn becomes less of an issue. At a broader organisational level, learning becomes easy by building learning into everyday work rituals like debriefs and feedback sessions, a move from a “training” mindset to an “everyday learning” mindset.

To get engagement in learning, start by asking people what their business challenges are. Providing solutions that people really want to learn about (pull factors) and not just what the business demands they know (push factors) is key.

Studies have also shown that peer learning is much more effective than learning that comes from the executive or corporate level that pushed from the top down. A bit like having a gym buddy, learning in a group can also make people more accountable – our research has shown people are 10x more likely to form a learning habit in groups.

Encourage a culture of everyday learning

Think of your organisation’s learning culture as an iceberg. At the top, you have the programmes and technology that people use, but under the surface are the everyday behaviours and cultural nuances that exist in your organisation and have a real impact on how well-received and embedded the bits at the top are.

Here’s a great illustration of what we mean:

So how do you ensure you focus on the deeper layers of the iceberg?

Focus on the day to day messages people receive about your culture – when you look at how time and money is spent, what’s sits on agendas and stories that are told, do they reinforce or inhibit learning?

As leaders, how are you, your peers and senior leaders role modelling learning? Do you ask questions that evoke reflection on lessons learned? Do you encourage a culture of feedback? After every big meeting or deliverable submitted, do you embed giving positive and constructive feedback into your workflow?

To become a catalyst of a learning culture, it is important that senior leaders share their vulnerabilities and examples of how they’ve messed up and what they have learned. This encourages psychological safety, which in turn creates an environment where employees feel respected and accepted, and where failure is seen as an opportunity for learning rather than a mistake that is permanently held against you.

This creates a context where employees will feel safe enough to be vulnerable with each other, and comfortable enough to speak out against popular ideas or opinions and give feedback to their peers.

This is important because as Amy Edmondson — the Harvard organisational behavioural scientist that coined the term psychological safety — points out, a safe team environment is critical to building a high-performing and successful team and a learning culture.

Encourage learning from the bottom up

Leverage peer power to start a movement.

People’s behaviour online becomes more collaborative the more followers and influencers demonstrate sharing. With time, more and more people move from being passive consumers of learners to active contributors who share their own learnings with their peers so they can all go faster.

Think of it as a dance party. Create a group of active ‘first followers’ (influencers) who see the value in what you are doing and the behaviours will catch on. See the Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy in the video below:

We’ve all been told that we should be leaders, but as indicated in the video above, it was that courageous ‘first follower’ who actually inspired others to join in. When you catch someone doing something great, be brave enough to be the first person to stand up and kickstart the movement.

It’s important to create an environment that is conducive for sharing and isn’t forced. Use your ‘first followers’ to role model and share the value, and let your team learn from it.

You can find out more about the journey from reader to leader here.

Key things to remember

In order to build a lasting learning culture:

  • Incorporate learning into everyday activities, and give access to content that is purposeful, relevant, and in bitesize chunks
  • Focus on boosting psychological safety in the organisation so that your employees feel confident enough to speak out
  • Create a group of ‘first followers’ to encourage peer learning

Remember that cultural change doesn’t always happen overnight. In most cases it can be a gradual process through small leaps and victories made on the daily — so be consistent, exercise some patience, and remain persistent.

If you’d like to swap ideas on how to build a lasting learning culture, we’d love to hear from you!

We’ve launched a new digital community for D&I leaders to swap ideas, share insights, and troubleshoot challenges. You can sign up for access here.

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