Why don’t we ever learn (vertically)?


August 19th, 2015


asleep bMuch is invested in organisational and individual learning, so how come deep learning is still relatively rare? I don’t mean ‘horizontal’ learning, where the objective is to extend an existing base of technical expertise. I mean ‘vertical’ learning, where we change assumptions and frames that shape our perception, decision making and action (Brown, 2014). Those spending the money – L&D, OD, consultants etc – should of course be accountable. But as the recipient, should more responsibility be placed on the learner? 70:20:10 (Lombardo and Eichinger, 1996) has moved things on a bit, but responsibility often gravitates back to people other than learners themselves in my experience.

There are exceptions of course – leaders do learn, and sometimes they transform themselves. The generous support I have received from my employers in order to learn returns me to the word responsibility. My own vertical learning has not been a product of a prescribed course or suggestion from a boss. Instead I have largely chosen what to learn and how, and I believe that my resulting focus and energy to learn is mainly what has shifted my way of being and working. Others with a different makeup may not reference inwardly for motivation so much, but it seems to be a key ingredient for most people when the focus is on vertical development.

Old jokes about psychologists and lightbulbs come to mind*, but there’s more truth in that than we seem to have taken on board in action, which brings me to the first part of my answer. Put simply, most of us don’t actually like vertical learning. Having our assumptions and schemas (Torbert, 2004) challenged is uncomfortable, even exhausting. When we open ourselves to real inquiry we risk fundamental views we hold as ‘true’ crumbling before our eyes. For example, when a leader realises that certain types of problems can’t be solved with linear, planned steps and known expertise, the basis of some of their professional training and even identity as a leader up to that point may start to dissolve. The second part of my answer to the question, then, is that organisations rarely create an environment sufficiently safe for leaders to enter into this necessarily vulnerable space of inquiry. It should exist in good quality development programmes, but if we sign up to the 70:20:10 philosophy, we know this is not even half the battle. The workplace culture awaiting the newly inspired leader after a programme is rarely as conducive a space to learn.

Therefore, the final part of my answer is another question. What can leaders do, themselves, to take responsibility for modelling the levels of vulnerability needed to learn vertically? This seems a crucial question for two reasons. Firstly most leaders will only get so much help from others, so they don’t have much choice if they want to reach their full potential. Secondly though, almost regardless of their organisational position, if they can start to model vulnerable inquiry, it will start to create permission for others to do so. My answer is to build resilience, emotional intelligence and body intelligence. That gets us in touch with the fact that moments of true learning are all around us. These capabilities also give us the strength to hold ourselves in the intensity of these moments, maintain our own boundaries and invite feedback, ideally in the here and now or otherwise soon after. I’m interested in others’ thoughts too though.

Further reading

  1. Argyris, C. (1991). Teaching Smart People How to Learn. Harvard Business Revew, May-June 1991 issue. Available here: https://hbr.org/1991/05/teaching-smart-people-how-to-learn
  2. Brown, B. (2014). The Future of Leadership For Conscious Capitalism. Interview here.
  3. Deary, V. (2014). How To Live: part 1 of 3 – How We Are. Penguin.
  4. Kegan, R. and Lahey, L. (2009). Immunity to change. Harvard Business Review Press.
  5. Torbert, B and Associates (2004). Action Inquiry. Berrett Koehler. Website here.
  6. Lombardo, M. and Eichinger, R. (1996). The Career Architect Development Planner (1st ed.). Minneapolis: Lominger.


* That joke.. How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? It doesn’t matter, the lightbulb has to want to change..