Why We Need Each Other to Learn

November 2, 2022

For the past three months, I have been on a wild and creative business-building journey with the Founder Institute (FI) Silicon Valley. This “accelerator program” guides entrepreneurs through an intense and structured program to move from idea to product stage. Essentially from day one, the work involves exposing a draft idea to other creative minds and getting feedback, going back to the drawing board, iterating, repeat … It is not a solo entrepreneurial journey.

This creative and stretching process is bearing fruit as I approach graduation next week! Awake in Business is launching a leadership development training platform called AwakeTeams (beta version coming soon!).

AwakeTeams empowers employees to show up fully and connect with each other at work. It does this through a team-based learning approach and curriculum that develops skills and measurably improves communication, trust-building, and productive collaboration over time.

Why team-based learning?

How do we humans learn? While it might be tempting in our current times to think that humans do not learn, or not fast enough (!), the evidence shows that we do accumulate knowledge, learn, grow, and innovate. Learning starts at the earliest age as we imitate others speaking whichever language we are born into. The ability to imitate, and then accumulate learning and adaptive behaviors over time, known as “the ratchet effect”, is what sets us apart from primates as described by psychologist Michael Tomasello.

We are not unique in the animal kingdom in our need for each other to survive, but we are unique in how we learn from each other. This adaptive, accumulated cultural learning enables us to pool resources so that we grow individually and collectively. But we need each other for that to happen. Without others to observe, and with whom we can engage in discourse, share intentions, and collaborate, the cultural learning curve does not develop.

It ends up we are also wired for connection and cooperation. So, we learn because our biology propels us to move toward each other, to want to engage, collaborate, and help each other. Psychologists call this prosociality. Through this prosocial movement, we extend toward each other and can share resources and learning. This creates what is now commonly referred to as belonging. We connect, learn, and create cultural values and norms together.

How can we optimize these uniquely human capabilities of adaptive learning and prosocial behavior in workplaces? So that we continue to develop the cultural learning curve and are able to thrive and feel a sense of belonging at work?

Collective learning and belonging at work

In the workplace, team-based learning offers opportunities for exploring ideas, discussing differences, and learning to resolve conflict. A powerful learning curve can develop as team members discuss and reflect from different perspectives, ask questions, challenge assumptions, and identify flaws. Research shows that learning and interacting together increases the knowledge level of a team.

"Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up."
--Oliver Wendell Holmes

With the right team skillset, a positive context of constructive conflict gets created over time. As team members successfully navigate and pass through difficulty that might otherwise be avoided, innovation, productivity, and a sense of belonging increase. This process develops an additional kind of team “knowledge” and adaptive learning curve.

For this kind of development to happen, research shows that teams need to learn together. What does that mean? Teams are exposed to the same learning path, and because each team member has a different experience of it, the differences contribute to the overall learning. The learning path broadens from the diverse perspectives and interpretations of the same material.

The same research reveals that it is also important that team members learn individually. Team learning requires both the ability of each team member to acquire and contribute knowledge and skills, and the ability to collectively share the knowledge with teammates. The beauty and magic of learning is in the paradox! We are each needed as individual contributors and we are able to contribute and learn more when we are in it together!

How do teams best learn and grow?

The “Google nudge model” describes a process of bite-sized learning, integration, practice, and positive reinforcement (and “nudges”) to optimize development of new skills over time. That model is based on the book by Nobel Prizewinner Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” The nudges and reinforcements we need come from the external environment.

AwakeTeams is based on this learning model. We need time to integrate new learning and we also need to practice with each other for the learning to be encoded and create new frames of reference and behaviors. Through a process of team training and practice sessions, bite-sized individual nuggets, and peer feedback over six months, teams learn, grow, and connect.

In addition to deliberate “nudges” and reinforcements from teammates, being on a learning journey together increases engagement with the learning itself. We are accountable to each other and it is visible when we are not participating. Simply seeing our teammates at work can also serve as a “nudge” to reinforce new insights and behaviors.  

"Leadership is a series of behaviors rather than a role for heroes."
--Margaret Wheatley

Another interesting model for how learning gets integrated, or as the authors describe it, how learning “sticks”, is the AGES model. Developed by Lila Davachi, Tobias Kiefer, David Rock, and Lisa Rock, it is backed by decades of research in cognitive science, educational psychology, and emerging neuroscience. The four elements necessary for learning to “stick” include: Attention, Generation, Spacing, and Emotions.

Attention involves the focusing of attention so that it is possible to shift from a mind-wandering state to one of intentional concentration. This kind of concentration is needed for imprinting learning into the hippocampus, the memory center of our brain. It is not a permanent state but can be cultivated.

Generation is the second step. Once learned, new material requires active engagement to enable new connections and insights. Generation can be fueled through practice and sharing sessions with teammates. Contextualization of the new material is key, and that the learner has some new experience related to the new content.

The next step involves emotion. When we respond emotionally to something, the physiological response in our body can accelerate encoding in the memory center of our brain. We remember what we feel and if we can experience positive emotions while we are learning something new, it increases the chances that it gets encoded and “sticks.”

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
-- Maya Angelou

The final step in the AGES model is spacing. Spacing emphasizes that we learn over time. This step encourages introducing new content at a steady rate with pauses in-between to allow for consolidation of learning through integration and practice.

What is AwakeTeams?

AwakeTeams is a team-based enterprise software platform that empowers employees to show up fully and connect with each other at work. Powered by Awake in Business and coming soon! AwakeTeams integrates all the above learning and offers teams of 10 a six-month collective learning journey.

The journey includes virtual team training modules with interactive practice sessions, tailored individual micro-modules based on peer assessment data, and ongoing peer feedback. The curriculum develops skills for effective communication, trust-building, and productive collaboration, all key employee engagement drivers. Through the online platform and ongoing dashboards and training interventions, the key skills are tracked and improved over time.

The team approach increases program engagement, allows for peer learning, and reveals blind spots through peer feedback. Each teammate is accountable for their own and the team's performance, so the team is encouraged to model and teach strong points and learn from others on weak points.

Why now?

As we work remotely and adapt to the new normal, we need connection, creativity, and innovative ideas. Even though we are physically distant, we need to find ways to empower collaboration and stay connected with one another. We need it culturally as it becomes more and more evident that we need knew collective knowledge and ways of working and living. We also need it personally for our mental health and resilience.

I am writing this from the San Francisco Bay Area, where we are still living under strict shelter-in-place guidelines due to the ongoing spread of Covid-19 and we are also experiencing the ravages of historic wildfires and unhealthy, smoke-filled air. These intense past few months have highlighted the reality of our collective experience and our inevitable impact on each other. We affect each other. We are susceptible to what each other does and the earth is also susceptible to what we do.

The complex, cultural systems we have created through our unique human capacity for adaptive, accumulated learning also require our stewardship. Now seems like a good time to pool our resources, learn together, and step into new territories with expanded knowledge. We can only do that together and good stewardship needs us all on board.

AwakeTeams is my contribution to facilitate and bring forth our collective learning capacity. We can be better and stronger together, and we can all also use some training, nudges, and reinforcements to help make that a reality.

I’d also love to hear your thoughts about the new product. You can reach me at laura@awakeinbusiness.com.

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