Why lessons are not so easy to learn
The context of this exploration is twofold a) to examine how lessons may not be learned by individuals and b) difficulty for organisations in learning lessons.
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What ordinary people expect
Let us start by understanding how ordinary people might decide what is a lesson learned. I suggest that they may expect the following:
- Cause and effect recognition: Many people see learning a lesson as straightforwardly recognising a direct cause and effect relationship. “I did X, and Y happened as a result. I don’t want Y to happen again, so I shouldn’t do X ever again.“
- Expectation of behavioural change: There’s an implicit assumption that once the cause of a mistake is recognised, the individual won’t repeat it. The lesson is often seen as a direct, actionable insight that should prevent the recurrence of an unwanted outcome.
- Tangible outcomes: The focus tends to be on tangible, observable outcomes rather than abstract or introspective learnings. For many, the proof of having learned a lesson is in the changed behaviour and improved outcomes.
- Simplicity and pragmatism: The approach is often pragmatic. If a certain action leads to negative consequences, the logical step is to alter or avoid that action in the future.
- External accountability: There’s often an expectation from others that once someone has recognised their mistake and claimed to have learned from it, they shouldn’t make the same mistake again. This external accountability reinforces the direct link between recognition and behavioural change.
The deeper reality
Determining if an individual or organisation has genuinely learned a lesson involves a combination of observable (demonstrable) behaviours, changed outcomes, and underlying attitudinal shifts. Here are some suggested key indicators:
- Observable behavioural change: The most direct indication is a consistent change in behaviour or actions that align with the lesson learned. For an individual, this might mean consistently avoiding a previously committed error. For an organisation, it might manifest as a change in standard operating procedures or the introduction of new protocols.
- Improved outcomes: True learning should yield better results. This might be fewer mistakes, improved efficiency, increased profitability, or any other relevant metric that indicates a positive shift from past performance.
- Internalization of new knowledge: For individuals, this involves being able to articulate what was learned and how it affects their decision-making process. For organisations, it might be reflected in training materials, company literature, or strategic planning documents.
- Proactive measures: Instead of merely reacting to problems, a learned individual or organisation will proactively implement measures to prevent anticipated issues. This forward-thinking approach is a hallmark of genuine learning.
- Receptive feedback mechanisms: An entity that has learned will be open to feedback and will establish mechanisms to receive and act on it. This might be in the form of performance reviews, customer feedback systems, or other feedback loops.
- Consistent application across varied contexts: Truly learned lessons are applied consistently, even in contexts different from the original learning scenario. This demonstrates the ability to generalize and apply the learned lesson in various situations.
- Reduction in reliance on external oversight: An individual or organisation that has genuinely learned should require less external monitoring or intervention to ensure the correct behaviour, signifying that the lesson has been internalized.
- Reflection and meta-cognition: This involves thinking about one’s thinking. An individual or organisation that frequently reflects on actions, decisions, and outcomes, evaluating them against past lessons, shows a deep level of learning.
- Resilience to backsliding: It’s natural for entities to revert to old habits, especially under stress. Resisting this urge and maintaining new behaviours even under pressure or during challenging times is a good indicator of true learning.
- Cultural or attitudinal shifts: Especially relevant for organisations, a change in the underlying culture or attitudes towards certain behaviours, risks, or processes indicates that learning has permeated deeper than just procedural changes.
Even if a lesson appears to have been learned at one point, it’s essential to periodically reassess to ensure that the lesson remains ingrained and relevant in changing contexts. In other words, the genuine learning of a lesson means that the learning is demonstrable, enduring and resistant to repetition of the same factors that contributed to the same sort of mistakes.
Discomfort in individual change
Various psychological theories and neurobiological mechanisms that suggest a heightened efficiency in learning and behavioral change when an issue becomes painful or deeply personally significant. This effect can be ascribed to multiple factors that converge to facilitate quick and lasting change.
- Pain as a motivator for change: From an evolutionary perspective, pain and discomfort serve as immediate signals that demand attention and action. When these signals are strong, the incentive to modify behavior is commensurately elevated, thereby expediting the learning process.
- Personal importance and self-concept: When an issue is of deep personal importance, it is likely to engage an individual’s self-concept or identity. Identity-based motivation theories suggest that people are more likely to act in accordance with a behavior if it is congruent with their perceived identity, enhancing the speed and durability of the learning process.
- Cognitive Dissonance: The experience of pain or deep personal significance can create cognitive dissonance—a psychological state that is uncomfortable and motivates the individual to reduce the dissonance by changing their behavior or beliefs, thereby facilitating more efficient learning and adaptation.
- Impact on neuroplasticity: Adverse or emotionally charged experiences are known to activate stress hormones like cortisol, which, in the right context, can enhance synaptic plasticity and facilitate memory consolidation. This can render the learning experience more efficacious.
- Feedback loop of self-efficacy: Experiencing successful behavior change in response to a painful or highly significant event can also enhance self-efficacy, which is a crucial element for sustaining long-term behavior change according to Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory.
- Hyperbolic discounting: Pain and personal importance often make future consequences more salient, effectively decreasing the hyperbolic discounting of future rewards and punishments. This alteration in temporal valuation enhances the individual’s capacity for delayed gratification, making immediate behavior change more feasible.
- Commitment mechanisms: Painful or deeply personal experiences often trigger stronger commitment mechanisms, whether through public declarations, moral engagements, or social contracts, that fortify the resolve to change.
- Value-based decision making: When an issue is personally significant, value-based decision-making processes gain prominence over habit-based or automatic processes, allowing for more deliberate and effective behavioral modification strategies.
In sum, the intersection of pain and personal significance creates a potent milieu that catalyzes learning and facilitates lasting change by engaging a range of cognitive, emotional, and neurobiological systems. It essentially acts as a powerful lever that can overcome the inertia of pre-existing habits, cognitive biases, and systemic barriers to change. Thus, from a clinical perspective, understanding how to harness these elements could be instrumental in formulating more effective therapeutic interventions.
The path is never sudden or smooth. There may be repetition of mistakes or repetition of lesser versions of the same mistakes on the path to true learning or resilience.