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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Why People Don’t Learn

Why People Don’t Learn post image

Josh Bradley in a comment under one of my older posts made me realize an interesting thing. Let me do the weirdest thing ever and quote myself a few times.

“In general, people don’t care if you want to (and can) teach them something. They don’t want to learn.”

Pawel Brodzinski, 2010

“People are lazy. They don’t learn because it’s easier to leave things as they are.”

Pawel Brodzinski, 2010

Theory X tells us that people are lazy and we need to supervise them otherwise they’d do nothing. If you ask me, that’s total bullshit.”

Pawel Brodzinski, 2013

Now I feel so much better – someone has just quoted me. Wait, wasn’t it auto-quotation? Oh well…

The point is that three years later I seem to have completely opposite point of view. I used to think that people are inherently lazy and now I consider that absurd. Embarrassing, isn’t it?

Let me start with defending my younger self. On one level lazy, not willing to learn attitude is as ubiquitous as it was. I still look at the vast majority of people and see the same dysfunction. People would complain how their organizations don’t support their intrinsic urge to learn. At the same time they’d idly sit looing as learning opportunities as they pass by making a swooshing sound.

The symptoms haven’t changed.

What has changed is how much of a cause I ascribe to the people.

I’m not a systems thinking junkie. I do consider people co-creators of the system they operate in. At the same time though they start with a given situation and can’t change it freely, thus the system constrains them on many accounts.

How does it translate to laziness and reluctance to learn? Well, the questions we should ask are how the organization supports learning and what the rewards (or punishments) are when one decides to invest their time to self-development.

There are (many) companies which don’t support personal development of their employees. This makes the game whole more challenging. At the same time I’m yet to see an organization where there is virtually no opportunities to learn.

In fact, I think these two perspectives are inseparably connected. An organization that doesn’t support learning would discourage people with an urge to learn to stay there in a longer run. What’s more people who rarely give a damn about learning would thrive there sustaining the existing culture. Obviously, the opposite is true as well.

As Jim Benson said “people build systems build people.” Both of them have to be in place to see continuous learning culture flourish.

in: personal development, software business

10 comments… add one

  • Dimitar December 1, 2013, 1:10 am

    If we look at “learning” as a means to an end and not as an end in itself the fog should go away and it should be clear that if we want to build an ever flourishing organization we should focus on 1) defining the end or the goal of the system and 2) make sure every person who is part of the system is aware of the goal and 3) help every person to compare his personal goal with the system’s goal so that 4) we identify the means that will help both the organization and the people working in it identify the means for achieving the goal. I am sure one of the means identified will be “lifelong learning”.

  • Andrej December 1, 2013, 2:46 am

    So,you are still saying that people are lazy and organization must encourage learning )

  • Pawel Brodzinski December 1, 2013, 4:18 am

    @Dimitar – I wish it was true. Most of the time a definition of the goal doesn’t take into account long-term perspective. This leaves little space for learning as it pays off almost only in the long run.

    Anyway, as long as I’d agree that learning is a mean to an end it can’t be considered only in the context of the current system. Whatever I’ve learned in the organizations I worked in the past I still have with me. In fact, this is one of key reasons why I am where I am right now.

    It’s not only about the current goals of the system. It goes far beyond that.

  • Pawel Brodzinski December 1, 2013, 4:22 am

    @Andrej – Sort of, I guess ;)

    I observe that people aren’t willing to invest in their learning, but in big part I don’t blame them. Also I’d be more reluctant to call them “lazy” — it may be a label not grounded in facts.

    The major difference is how much weight I assign to how the organization acts and how it forms people behaviors.

  • Dimitar December 1, 2013, 4:28 am

    @Pawel – why most of the time the definition of the Goal doesn’t take into account long-term perspective?

  • Pawel Brodzinski December 1, 2013, 1:47 pm

    @Dimitar – I say that simply as a result of the observations of many organization. Way too often the goal is around short term (financial) results. This create incentives to ignore people well-being and just push harder to achieve the goals.

    We know what’s next — people start leaving, making achieving goal more challenging and as a result even more pressure from the top is introduced. A negative reinforcing loop.

    I didn’t say that the goal should take into account long-term perspective though. Obviously it should.

  • Danil December 1, 2013, 2:06 pm

    We only notice people learning something when it’s of some importance to us. And people have many interests in their life that are not important to us at all. Well some have many … other – not that much. Check out the “white spots”. The people you consider learning more then others. What are their hobbies? Do they have families? Do they value having frends or are they keeping only the closiest ones?

    People learn constantly, it’s what they lean that differes.

  • Pawel Brodzinski December 1, 2013, 4:46 pm

    @Danil – A good point. What interests me here is learning that is applicable in our work context.

    Why? Well, this is what differentiate people who have potential to grow from those who will stay roughly where they are now. It’s obvious that a preferable bet would be on the former.

    You can potentially phrase is differently too. If someone is learning stuff that they do at work odds are that they are passionate about what they do at work and they don’t treat it as means to pay the rent only. And if someone’s passions are aligned with what they do at work it’s a win-win, isn’t it?

    So basically, that’s why learning stuff that is relevant for our workplaces is so crucial for me.

  • Mark Rodwell December 19, 2013, 8:20 am

    That was funny:)
    People can be really lazy, most of them are, but luckily, they are also all different. So you shouldn’t balme yourself too much – both the ideas are right in their own way.

  • Fendy February 3, 2014, 3:29 am

    Pawel,
    Beforehand, I really satisfied with a nice article which you write and come with some own perspective as well.

    I believe that Danil’s comment has a baseline for it, it is what the “main interest” of one’s have. If the “subject to be learnt” is in corresponding interest with the “subject whom will learn”, I believe that the person will want to learn.

    The main problem here, most of the employees (staff or developer in your context)’s interest is not aligned with their job. Especially developer, it is said that many will pursue to get the job because it is well paid, and have good career path.

    Taken for example if a developer’s interest (his/her hobby) is doing sport or playing music, I believe that their interest to learn programming is lower than his passion in learning their hobby. If his/her interest is in automotive (cars), it is the same, and you will be surprised by how good they are in their domain.

    Even in programming itself, there are many fields of expertise here. Taking examples for performance such as big O, design patterns, memory management, algorithm, even goes to management level such as PR and PM is still related to programming. Find the subject of interest of a person, bait them and they will show the passion for learning.

    There may be exception though, in which will go to the extreme. Such as a person which does not show the will to learn even though it is aligned with their interest, or a person which shows the will to learn even though it is not aligned with their interest. But I have yet find such person until now.

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