Taking advantage of unconscious learning

Taking advantage of unconscious learning

There’s an exciting area of psychology that helps us to understand that much of what we learn occurs without us even realising that we have learnt it.

There is no conscious effort involved in this learning – it just happens through exposure, such as by spending lots of time with another person who is skilled in an area that we are not.

This type of learning is called Implicit Learning, which simply means learning that occurs outside of our conscious awareness.Much of what we know is learnt this way. How do we know this is happening? Psychologists have shown that our behaviour changes without us realising that it is changing, simply by being around other people. The research shows that we become more like the people we associate with, often without realising it or even wanting it to occur. We pick up their skills, we pick up their mannerisms, and we pick up their habits.

It makes sense when you think about it. If you want to become highly skilled at anything, spend time with people who are already highly skilled in that area. If you want to be highly motivated, hang out with other people who are highly motivated.

Valuable knowledge “rubs off”
I’ve spent a lot of time reading about and trying to make sense of unconscious learning and how we can take advantage of it. It’s something I’ve been interested in for many years. The best way I can explain this is: the most valuable, skill-based, knowledge “rubs off” from the expert to the novice. We don’t really fully understand how or why it occurs, we just know that it does.

That’s why I’m a big advocate of any learning relationship that resembles the master/apprentice model. If you want your less experienced employees to become more like your experts, pair them up with your most skilled employees. This is not about short meetings together, but big lengths of time, such as sitting them side-by-side in the workplace, regularly rostering them on together, and sending them off on assignments together.

If you want valuable knowledge to multiply within your organisation, pair up your novices with your experts. And don’t hide your most skilled employees in offices or work locations where they are by themselves. That’s sacrilege to knowledge sharing. You want an expert’s knowledge to spread and that doesn’t happen by hiding them away on their own.

But why can’t I get the expert to just write down everything they know?
Throughout my career, I’ve often heard people say things like, “we can’t keep Jane’s knowledge in her head; we need to get her to document everything she knows before she retires”. So you get organisation’s going to great lengths trying to document “everything” the expert knows. It’s so funny and so futile, really.

There’s nothing wrong with work manuals and they are great references when combined with “know-how”. For example, a novice that is learning from an expert, can remind themselves about something they’ve learnt from the expert by referring to a manual, or to notes they took while they were learning something new. But without some foundation “know how”, manuals have limited usefulness. Why? Because we know far more than we can capture through language. A lot of the time the expert can’t convey through words the skill that they have attained, the reasons why they do particular things, the sequence they use, or the danger points they avoid without conscious thought. But they can show you.

In my Managing People for High Performance training program, I take managers through a section on learning, where I teach them about unconscious learning and 2 different types of knowledge (1. verbal knowledge and 2. procedural knowledge, or “know how”), both valuable, but very different from each other. I take them through this thought experiment to illustrate this point:

Go back in time. You are 17 years old and you are learning to drive. You’ve never been behind the wheel of a car and the government has come out with a new law. There is no need to take driving lessons – in fact you are not allowed to get behind the wheel of any car until you have your full driver’s licence. You’re given a 2000 page manual, all words, hundreds of experts have worked on this manual and put together the definitive guide to driving a car and to the road rules. It’s all in there! How to use the brakes, automatic gears, manual gears, accelerator, road rules, everything in excruciating detail. After studying this manual for 2 hours a night for 1 year, you sit a 3 hour exam. Congratulations! You passed the exam. Here is your driver’s licence. You are free to go and you’re now a fully licensed driver. Just go off and drive on your own. You know it all now. After all, you passed the exam.

What will happen when you get in a car and start driving on your own?

Implications for personal achievement
There’s that saying “if you want to soar like an eagle in life, you can’t be flocking with the turkeys”, and unconscious learning helps us to understand the truth to this saying. If you want to be a high achiever, it’s going to be hard if the people you associate with don’t have similar aspirations to you.

It also gets me thinking of all the different people in my life and the way they impact on who I am. We are social beings and in anything we want to achieve in life, I think about taking advantage of unconscious learning, through who I choose to spend time with. Who are the people I want to be more like and how do I get to spend more time around them?

Implications for management development
There is a major deficiency in the people management skills we see in organisations, across-the-board.  It’s something people frequently complain about. I hear things like this all the time: “she was a really good sales person, then they promoted her to be a manager, and she just doesn’t have the skills”.

It’s such a shame, because there’s some basic people management skills that, if mastered, can have major impacts on the motivation levels of employees, on productivity, on morale, and ultimately on profitability. If you don’t have good people managers in your business, then you have a real problem. Who do they learn from? Who can they spend time with, so that the valuable people management skills will “rub off” on them?

So what’s the solution?  You can pick one or two key managers and put them through a coaching program like this one. While coaching may not provide the long-term exposure you need to achieve good unconscious learning, it’s the next best thing. And if you can get one or two of your key managers to develop their people management skills, other managers will gain these skills through exposure to these managers. That way the people management skills of your organisation will increase, through unconscious learning.

John Girardi

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