Clinton Longenecker, 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 downturn.
The 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:
- 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.
- 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 of 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 addressed.
- 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 changing environment.
- 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.
- Ego and over-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.
- Unmotivated to learn and/or unwillingness to address skill 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.
- 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.
- Bad/ineffective boss (54 percent) - if 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Superiors must play a larger part in helping subordinate managers learn and develop the skills necessary to 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.
- 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.
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