Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below is an abstract of a chapter on the barriers
encountered when individuals, teams, and organizations learn. It is
taken from Nelson, Watkins K. & Marsick V. (1993). Overcoming
Barriers to Change. In Sculpting the Learning organization. San
The abstract, prepared by Vaibhavi Gala of the Stanford University
Learning Laboratory (SLL) and under the direction of Dr. John Nash, is
another in a series of learning summaries prepared regularly by the Lab.
All abstracts in this series are copyright ?1999 Board of Trustees Leland
Stanford Junior University.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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OVERCOMING BARRIERS TO CHANGE
Abstracted by Vaibhavi Gala
Stanford Learning Lab
In this chapter, the authors identify three barriers encountered when
individuals, teams, and organizations learn: a) truncated learning,
b) learned helplessness, and c) tunnel vision. They discuss
strategies for addressing each barrier and explore some dilemmas that
need to be resolved while designing learning organizations. They
conclude that organizations benefit by paying attention to learning
that goes beyond short-term needs for immediate gains. Changes in
organizational structure & culture may be required to ensure
A) Barriers to Learning
Truncated Learning: Many learning efforts initiated by organizations
never really take root because they are interrupted or only partially
implemented. Sometimes an idea begins in one part of the
organization, and not all the people necessary for its success are
brought on board. At other times, the vision may not be adequately
articulated Truncated learning also takes place when organizations
adopt many changes at once without regard to the limits of human
malleability. Another source of truncated learning is a premature
evaluation and discomfort with a new norm. Thus, an initiative may be
cut short before change can occur.
Learned Helplessness: When people's efforts at taking control meet
with resistance or even punishment, they often learn 'helplessness'
and become passive. Organizations that have a rigid hierarchy and
overbureaucratization can foster this passivity. Learned helplessness
is not just a feature of individuals. Teams can also learn to
passively let managers direct them.
Martinko and Gardner (1982) have developed a theory of Organizational
Induced Helplessness that sheds light on this complex phenomenon.
People can become desensitized to uncomfortable situations and
therefore not act to change them. Organizations learn to be helpless
when cues from the environment are coupled with a history of success
or failure. People have certain assumptions about likely outcomes and
these assumptions influence behavior.
Many factors affect the attributions made by individuals about their
ability to affect a situation. For example, bureaucratic
organizations make it difficult to do anything not defined by the
rules. Employees feel frustrated and are predisposed toward learned
helplessness even when conditions change. Similarly, when goals are
unrealistic and unachievable, employees learn to underachieve.
Learned helplessness dulls awareness and innovation because people
respond to a new situation with the assumption that they are
incapable of doing anything to change events.
People can learn to counter this helplessness by observing others, by
trial and error, and from job successes. Additionally, the
organization must attend to environmental factors that inhibit
initiative and reward passivity. The authors give the example of
Linda, a secretary at a petrochemical company, who took on a new
assignment after a merger. She initially felt helpless and diffident
about her new responsibilities. However through her peers' help, the
modeling provided by one of them, and supportive environmental
features, Linda was able to turn her learned helplessness around and
become a stronger, more active member in the new company culture.
Tunnel Vision: Tunnel Vision is an inability to see oneself and a
situation from a systems point of view. People are often aware of
their own perspective but not the complexity of the entire system.
At Coopers and Lybrand, the HR advisory group consulting practice is
using outdoor learning camps as a path to becoming a learning
organization. While no short-term outward-bound activity is likely to
bring about the kind of broadened perspective needed to overcome
tunnel vision, there are some promising features. The camps initiate
dialogue about risk taking as a first step toward change. Another key
aspect is reflection on how organizational structures and values
shape the responses of individuals to events. Risk-averse cultures
produce risk-averse managers. Rigid structures allow little room for
experimentation. To overcome systemic faults, the organization must
see the interdependence of these organization-wide structures, norms,
and policies. The camp experiences allowed people to observe how
everyone behaved when faced with an unknown problem and an unknown
solution. They were challenged at the end of the two days to reflect
on what structures drove their behaviors. They looked at the
organizational structures and assumptions that would have to be
created to encourage and support new behaviors. These experiences
created a powerful metaphor to use back at the workplace.
Another approach used by organizations to learn systems thinking is
the use of simulated decision-making games, such as People's Express,
that allow people to see the consequences of their decisions on
different departments in real time. Also, creating cross-functional
teams and providing cross-functional training help develop a broader
B) Dilemmas in Designing Learning Organizations
Growing number of temporary, part-time, and overtaxed workers:.
Workers who are overburdened with work resist learning because they
do not have the time for it. Similarly, the use of temporary or
part-time workers may also undermine organizational learning. Not
only is the organization less keen in investing in learning for
temporary workers, the employees are also less motivated to learn
because they are not a part of the community. When they do learn, it
is more difficult to embed ideas in the organization's memory because
they move on to another organization.
Changes in organizational structure and culture may be required to
ensure continuos learning While people's intrinsic motivation to
learn is important, it must be supported by a culture that stimulates
learning. Part-time and temporary workers need strategies to collect
and share their learning on the job. Periodic reports, for instance,
can be used to document not only whether objectives were met, but
also what was learnt. Ideally, a process for sharing new ideas and
procedures, such as a computerized suggestion system, could be
created that would be helpful to all employees, temporary or
permanent, full or part-time.
Changing Loyalties: Employees used to sign up with a company for
life. Individuals now often decide to be loyal to themselves and
their skills, not to an organization. They develop and follow a
personal vision, and organizations are only temporary arenas in which
to work out their vision. While learning organizations may not need
lifetime loyalty from all employees, they do need loyalty to quality
and excellence, to doing the job better.
The Paradox of Fear and Entitlement: A new employment trend
emphasizes that workers must earn their jobs or run the risk of being
fired. However, there is a paradox in using fear as a stimulus for
learning, because fear suppresses learning. On the other hand, some
employees believe in entitlement, or that the world, especially their
company owes them a living and such employees may become complacent
and apathetic. Thus, productivity is low when people feel entitled to
their job as well as when people are overanxious or living in fear
for their jobs.
To counter both these contradictory impediments to learning, the fear
and entitlement theory (Bardwick, 1992) proposes that the best form
of motivation is a combination of pressure and support. On surface,
this approach has parallels to the learning organization. But the
subtle mindset underlying it threatens the very fiber of the learning
organization. The fear and entitlement group values continuos
learning, teamwork, and competition in the service of a meritocracy.
However, to change the entitlement mindset, management is encouraged
to use fear repeatedly to return employees to a focus on earning
their jobs. In contrast, a learning organization recognizes that
creating widespread fear and unhealthy competition squelches
learning. Fear will do more harm to those who are already earning
their paycheck every day than to those who are intentionally or
Organizations benefit by paying attention to learning that goes
beyond specific techniques, tools, and short-term needs for immediate
gains. People have been passive in their learning, or at best, active
within limits they perceived as acceptable to the organization. They
have often not been able or prepared to take a longer-term systems
view. In building a learning organization, we must be careful not to
truncate learning processes, or foster learned helplessness, or to
tolerate tunnel vision.
Better planning can reduce truncated learning. Managers should be
persistent in efforts to help individuals and the organization draw
out lessons learned even when an initiative in abandoned. The problem
of learned helplessness can be worked out at a micro-level, through
counseling, informal interaction, training, and referrals to employee
assistance. Organizationally, expectations are shaped by the overt
and covert messages sent through the way jobs and reward systems are
designed, and the behaviors modeled down the line through management.
The antidote to tunnel vision is systems thinking, but that is not a
easy skill to learn unless organizations design work that demands and
rewards it. If employees see the direct results of their work, they
begin to understand why they must work more closely with other
departments and functions. Likewise, organizations must create the
conditions that enable to learn from one another and work together
across functional lines in a systemic way.