Updated: Sep 25
Many people fear their ability to keep up with the fast pace of digital innovations and adapt to new ways of work. This often results in employee frustration, insecurity, and sometimes even burnout. Executives, on the other hand, are concerned about retaining employees and attracting new talent with the right skill set, as the war for talent rages more fiercely than ever. However, it's important to remember that employee potential isn't solely determined by skills or competencies. Embracing a learning mindset, both personally and within the organization, allows us to view change as an opportunity for collective innovation and ongoing improvement, enabling us to excel and thrive together.
The Myth Unraveled About Learning and Aging
Let me start by saying that our brains do not lose the ability to learn as we age. In fact, brains are like sponges that absorb new things, or like muscles that get stronger as you use them. It is a myth to think that this "muscle" loses strength as you age. In fact, research by Kegan and Lahey (Harvard 2016) that plots mental complexity against age shows that the opposite could be true, and that we should actually revalue older workers.
Simply put, according to this research, learning is a process by which we develop new knowledge by making new connections between brain cells. This learning process and the new experiences lead to structural and functional changes in the brain, also called neuroplasticity. As long as there is no pathological condition, this process continues. Moreover, according to Kegan and Lahey's research, mental complexity increases with age. Thus, the myth that older workers cannot keep up can be debunked. With the right motivation and guidance, they will be all the better able to use their accumulated expertise and knowledge to grow their teams and the organization as a whole.
A Learning Mindset Is Like Nurturing the Child Within Ourselves
What I observe in many of my sessions is that we have unlearned or forgotten some of the key competencies that support the learning mindset. These competencies that enabled us as children to embrace learning, such as curiosity, which Stefaan van Hooydonk clearly points out in his book "The Workplace Curiosity Manifesto." Think of that child in you that kept asking, "Why, why, why?" to the annoyance of our parents and teachers who had forgotten its added value to learn. Combine this with an openness to all things novel, especially those that defied our accustomed norms, even if solely for the purpose of experimentation or rebellion. Furthermore, include the aspect of imagining our own future, where we had the potential to achieve anything. Retrieve those memories and warmly embrace that earlier version of yourself.
After all, it is from competencies like these that we had as children that we can grow into the future that scares us now. As leaders, we must also nurture these competencies in our fellow workers in order to create an organizational learning mindset. A learning mindset that emphasizes the importance of actively seeking new knowledge and skills. This requires openness to new experiences, curiosity, and a constant drive to expand understanding in different domains. This learning mindset focuses on the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding, encouraging adaptability and a willingness to learn from both successes and failures, perhaps even more so from failures that are positively shared in a safe environment.
Embrace Innovations That Support a Learning Mindset for Collaborative Growth
It might seem unusual, but it's precisely innovations such as generative AI and the sudden emergence of chatbots utilizing LLMs that might challenge our traditional way of working. These innovations highlight the limitations of our own brains, regardless of how hard we try to train that "muscle." Moreover, when you consider the excitement around virtual worlds like the metaverse, which garnered significant attention last year, it's easy to feel as if you're falling behind, or perhaps even aging and unable to keep up with these developments.
Still, as always, I want to inspire and even provoke you to look at the world through the eyes of children. They are the future of work, and for them, these alternative worlds and innovations have long been the new normal. Do you really think they didn't already spend years as a collective brain together doing their homework using apps they obviously didn't show us? Young people are used to their virtual friend "MyAI on Snapchat" joining in group conversations and helping choose where they will order pizza tonight or even helping them with more difficult live questions.
When I use the word "provoke," I mean to encourage you to feel a certain level of anxiety that motivates you to engage in conversations with younger individuals about their world. The objective is for both generations to learn from each other and collaborate in shaping the future of work, which can be daunting for everyone involved. Following this, I aim to invite leaders to facilitate interactions between generations, allowing them to appreciate each other's unique strengths. Together, we can foster a culture that embraces the presence of fear and the potential for failure, but more importantly, cultivates a collective passion for learning.