Clinton O. Longenecker Stranahan, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Excellence based at The University of Toledo, recently published his research finding that asked a sample of 230 managers from a cross section of 20 US service and manufacturing enterprises to answer the following research question; "Based on your experience, what are the primary barriers that prevent or damage a managers ability to learn?" At the time of this study, all of the participants were from organizations that were experiencing significant organizational changes brought on by the current economic down turn.
Key research findings on barriers to managerial learning
While learning is important to managerial career survival and success, here are the factors
the research participants identified as being key barriers to learning during periods of rapid
organizational change and transition:
1 . Time pressures (82 percent) - as managers' workloads increase because of economic
pressures, managers made it clear that finding time to read, attend a workshop or
seminar, reflect, seek out performance feedback and other learning practices are easily
pushed aside in the heat of battle for more urgent or pressing work activities.
2. Unaware of the need/don't know what they don't know (74 percent) second on the list
is the barrier of business leaders being unaware of the fact that they have a learning or
skills gap brought on by a rapidly changing workplace. A lack of awareness can create
serious problems for managers as they are unaware ol a learning deficiency. Changes
in responsibilities, new reporting relationships, new technologies, and new
processes/procedures all create the need for managerial learning, which must be
3. Little or no performance feedback or coaching (69 percent) - real learning requires
feedback and ideally coaching on how to improve performance regardless of a person's
position. Participants made it clear that a lack of meaningful feedback/coaching inhibits
and limits correcting performance deficiencies and learning how to operate in a rapidly
4. Lack of self-reflection and assessment (67 percent) - managers made it clear in their
responses that they are exceptionally busy, so it is no surprise that participants
recognized that a lack of self-reflection and self-assessment inhibits their ability to learn
and develop. As the pace of the modern workplace increases, and especially in periods
of rapid change, not taking time for self-reflection and personal appraisal is an easy trap
that managers can fall into creating a myriad of learning problems.
5. Ego and aver-confidence (65 percent) - managers who are accustomed to
success can easily develop a "know-it-all" attitude or inflated ego that limits their
ability to learn and develop. When a manager falls prey to this tendency they
often overlook their own learning needs or assume that their current skill-set and
talents equip them for any contingency, which is problematic at many levels. An
egocentric or over-confident leader who is unwilling to learn is prone to making
significant mistakes and sets a poor example for others in the organization.
6. Unmotivated to learn and/or unwillingness to address ski gaps (58 percent) -
Participants identified this next barrier as a manager who knows that they need to
develop new skills and talents, but lacks the motivation and/or willingness to address
the deficiency. This tendency is problematic on several levels, when one considers the
fact that performance is always a function of ability interacting with motivation. In this
case, the manager is in trouble on both counts as they know they have a skills gap but
they are unwilling to take action to learn and address the problem.
7. No accountability or support to learn and improve (55 percent) - when a manager is not
held accountable for their own growth and does not receive support in their efforts to
learn and improve, their development is stifled. Our participants made it clear that for
real learning to take place, managers need both accountability and proper support.
When time is at a premium, learning activities can be pushed aside as previously stated,
thus most managers need direction, encouragement, feedback and ongoing support to
accelerate their learning processes.
8. Bad/ineffective boss (54 percent) lf a manager has an ineffective superior. their
learning can be hindered in number of ways. Bad bosses set a poor example, are not a
trustworthy or credible source of feedback/coaching, create on the job frustrations for
subordinate managers that may distract them from learning and summarily add to
overall job stress, which can effectively crush the learning process.
9. No development plan (51 percent) - When a manager is immersed in a rapidly
changing workplace, their limitations and weaknesses are frequently exposed sooner
rather than later. When these deficiencies become apparent, an
improvement/development plan is almost always required to help the manager
identify his/her own learning needs and create an improvement plan that can be
implemented in a timely fashion. To acquire new, and in many cases, more sophisticated
managerial skills, managers in this study concluded that a developmental plan is
necessary and without it, learning becomes an inefficient process of trial and error.
10. Lack of resources (45 percent) - The final barrier identified by our participants was a
lack of organizational resources that can include any of a number of issues such as
training programs being cut, a lack of motivated mentors and coaches, a reduction in
management development seminars, and a freeze on discretionary development
spending all together.
A call to action
Given these findings, here is a call to action to individual managers, their superiors and the
organizations that they work for on the issue of managerial learning when an enterprise is
experiencing rapid change.
1. individual managers must take responsibility for their own learning and development
in periods to rapid change - managers must set aside time and be motivated to
learn and improve their performance when their organizations are changing all
around them. They must spend sufficient time in self-reflection and assessment,
create personal development plans and they must keep their egos in check. They
must take responsibility for their own learning and development.
2. Superiors must play a larger part in helping subordinate managers learn and develop
the skills necessary ta be successful in times of change - Superiors must realize that
there is no substitute for feedback and coaching during periods of rapid change, and
that they can play a significant role in their subordinates learning when they provide
support and accountability, realizing that their behavior can have a powerful effect on a
subordinate manager. Helping subordinates create development plans and providing
them with the necessary resources, accountability and follow-up is critical.
3. All senior leaders of organizations want higher performance, then they must support
manager at all levels in their efforts to lean and develop - Senior managers must
create accountability for learning and development from the top down, as managers will
emulate the behavior of those above them. When senior managers make learning a
priority, provide ongoing feedback to subordinates, help create realistic development
plans, and provide needed development resources they create an environment
conducive to learning.
When taken together, these lessons can go a long way to help overcome the barriers to
learning identified in this research.