Pop Quiz! Read the scenario below and choose your most likely response:
You buy an appliance and you're not sure how to install it. Unfortunately no one is available to install it for you, so you must do it yourself. What do you do first?
- 1. Call a friend.
- 2. Read the instruction manual.
- 3. Plunge ahead!
If we asked ten people this question, not everyone would answer the same. That's because, when confronted with an unfamiliar circumstance, each person's first inclination is different, as well as their second or third:
- Some of us reach out to a person who might have experience—people learners;
- Some of us crack the shrink wrap on the manual and dive into it—information learners; and
- Others of us grab the tools and get started—action learners.
While many of us would eventually try another approach if our first choice didn't work, the truth is that most of us are happily ensconced in a comfort zone of learning. We've got our 'go-to' choice, which has worked well for us over the years.
Each of the three learning approaches has merit and relevance. But, when overused, that approach may no longer serve us. It can become an unconscious habit that blocks us from more effective learning, like a catchy song that gets stuck in our heads whether we like it or not. And as our life and work challenges become more complicated and nuanced, the need to flex our learning style is critical. But because we're not aware we are in a rut, we continue trying more of the same and getting more of the same.
Nowhere is this truer than in career management. We embark, making all the right moves with the best of intentions. Until one day it happens: we run into a wall that we can't get over, around, or through. We're stuck—and we don't know why our career progress has stalled. It is possible that, at this moment, your familiar learning habits are to blame.
We are strongest at solving problems and meeting challenges when we engage with all three learning styles. Each learning style contains a critical element of a solution. In more detail, here are the three "comfort zones" of learning—each highly effective, but each limiting when it is the only approach in our repertoire.
People Learning gets results by using others' experience as a shortcut to learning. People learners often seek out best practices, glean insights from others, and learn fastest when they can discuss, brainstorm, and collaborate with others.
Career Challenge: You manage a team of Six Sigma black belts, who support improvement initiatives throughout your organization. You've been in this role for about three years, and you recently applied for internal promotions, with no success. You prefer People Learning.
How People Learning Is Helping You
You probably seek career advice from others, trying to learn why you haven't been promoted. When you apply for internal promotions, you probably leverage your internal networks as references and sources of information about the role so you can make the strongest possible application.
Information Learning—Carefully study the job description, rewriting your résumé to highlight your relevant expertise.
Action Learning—Since you can't do the job until you get it, provide examples to interviewers of your action plan for the first 30 days.
Information Learning is the ability to observe, synthesize, and analyze situations, facts, and data. Information learners are skilled observers—the stereotype of information learners glued to Google or with their nose in a manual just isn't true.
Career Challenge: As part of a high-potential rotational program, you've been asked to implement your company's new SAP processes in your department. You're going to do this by holding a training session for the department. The session has a lot of visibility; your manager tells you that this is a "career-making" opportunity. You prefer Information Learning.
How Information Learning Is Helping You
No one is more organized, structured, or diligent about the SAP implementation details than you. You're certain of the process steps. You have complete documentation and training manuals customized for each member of your department.
People Learning—Reaching out to other people who have implemented SAP in their departments to see what they've learned that could help you be most effective. What barriers or challenges did they face in the training?
Action Learning—A trial run or practice session with a key member or two of your department, using that feedback to fine-tune your training.
Action Learning uses experience and results to gauge effectiveness, and engages in step-and-repeat learning,proving true the motto, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."
Career Challenge: You're the national account sales manager for a large office equipment manufacturer. You've been told you have a bright future because of your can-do attitude and action orientation, but that you need to "be more strategic" in order to be promoted to an executive role. You have your eye on the VP Sales role. You prefer Action Learning.
How Action Learning Is Helping You
Just do it! That's your motto. You've willingly jumped into high-risk client situations and helped your company emerge a winner. You'll pick up the phone, badger corporate for the resources your clients need, put your feet on the street with your sales reps, and try new selling approaches.
People Learning—Connect with and interview the VP of Sales, other executives in your organization and in other like companies. What did they learn about the jump from field sales manager to corporate executive leader? What advice would they give you, especially about the strategic aspect of the role?
Information Learning—Locate your company's executive leadership competencies; how does your experience match with those? How does your company define "strategic"? To be seen as more strategic, subscribe to sales and industry publications. Be alert to trends and industry impacts and how they affect your company.
Now, with some insight into the three personal learning approaches and knowledge of your particular 'go-to' style, you can expand your learning style to include some of the other approaches. When faced with a new career challenge, try all three learning approaches for maximum effectiveness and to get unstuck—fast!