by Annie Peshkam and Gianpiero Petriglieri
Over the past five years, we have been taking our work online deliberately and at a steady pace. At INSEAD, the business school where we work, we’ve been expanding virtual meetings, ramping up virtual classes and coaching, and introducing digital tools to enhance face-to-face work. Then, in the past few weeks, everything else moved online, too. As in many organizations, the transition happened almost overnight in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis that has disrupted everyone’s private as well as working lives.
In such conditions, organizations and leaders might be forgiven for going into survival mode and putting learning aside. Companies do that all the time: They pause major learning initiatives, such as training courses, and minor ones, such as process checks after team meetings. They slash learning budgets and cancel mentoring sessions in a downturn. In times of upheaval, anxiety runs high and the instinct to preserve the world as we know it takes over. Leaders put aside their intent to include and develop, and revert to command and control. “Forget learning!” the thinking goes. “We can’t afford it when we need to secure operations and get the basics done.”
This is dangerous. Like all major crises, and perhaps more than most, the COVID-19 pandemic is bound to leave behind lasting changes in the way work and business take place. Learning will be the foundation of our survival, then, for both organizations and the individuals who make them up. As the world shifts to online work and businesses struggle to reinvent themselves, organizations need to learn what kinds of new products and services will appeal to their consumers and learn how to create them. Leaders must learn how to keep a distributed workforce focused, energized, and attuned to customers’ changing needs.
Whether you are a CEO, senior manager, or junior professional, if you neglect learning, you stop adapting and forego leading.
What makes prioritizing learning difficult now is a challenge facing both business leaders or business teachers: learning online is a lot more complicated than setting up a Zoom account and continuing business as usual. We’ve observed two instinctive reactions that can hold both groups back during this transition: first, becoming fixated on the mechanics rather than on the purpose of learning, and second, focusing on content alone when — even more importantly — we all need to learn how to be with, and relate to, each other in this new world.
For us and for the teachers we work with daily, the swift transition to virtual work has made it difficult to focus on learning — our own, our colleagues’, and our students’ — as the novelty of online platforms and the concern with sustaining performance take over. On top of that, we’re seeing business leaders hastily set up virtual platforms and then treat them as another tool to keep the old work going, rather than as a space to learn about new ways of working.
Now, more than ever, leaders and teachers alike should think critically about what each learning initiative aims to do. Peter Hope, a vice president and head of the Leadership Academy at Schneider Electric, a global energy company, has been practicing social distancing in Hong Kong since January while leading a global team remotely. He says that in transitioning to such a context, leaders tend to obsess about the ideas they want to communicate and which platforms can best accomplish that, confusing communication for empowerment. That is ultimately what learning is meant to accomplish, and he is adamant that it can be done on line. “We can use digital spaces to learn together,” he urges, “not just to tell each other what to do. This is the time to focus on learning, because everything is in flux.” If leaders can’t figure out how to do it, he says, “their business will suffer for it.”
Well over a half of the learning initiatives that Hope oversees are moving forward as planned, online. But that wouldn’t be easy, he admits, if the shift had not already been well under way at his company. “[Companies] that have not been preparing for digital learning, will find it harder in a crisis.” Here’s one reason: Working to build a bridge between the promise and practice of digital learning, we have observed that a move to virtual work provokes anxiety, and, as a reaction, the temptation for all involved is to embrace a simple, narrow view of learning as just the efficient transmission of knowledge through digital tools. That’s all the more true in a time of crisis, when anxiety is much stronger.
But learning is seldom just a transaction between an expert and a novice. It is a relationship that frees up thinking and fosters growth. In the midst of turmoil, leaders — and teachers — must discern what kind of learning is most valuable in order to work through and get past that crisis, and integrate different kinds of learning to lead the business and its people through it.
To do this effectively, leaders and teachers have to understand how learning actually works. A vast body of research has pointed out that there are two broad ways in which we learn, both at work and everywhere else. The first is cognitive. We absorb, processes, and use information to complete our tasks. Cognitive learning has us focusing on information and skills. We might get that factual information from a class, an article we read, or a colleague teaching us a new procedure. We might impart it by conscientiously preparing a slide deck and presenting it. Too often, when people think about learning remotely, they’re only thinking about how to facilitate cognitive learning.
The second way we learn is socio-emotional. We learn how we — and others — feel and think about the new situation we are in, and how to manage those thoughts and feelings. This type of learning has us focusing on people and requires that we inquire about our own and others’ experiences. Just as cognitive learning teaches us how to manage the natural world, socio-emotional learning helps us manage the social world. “Trying to sell fridges to Eskimos” is a classic metaphor of how moot your sales tools can be if you don’t learn about people first.
While we’re focused on getting the cognitive learning right, it’s easy to forget about the socio-emotional learning — and that’s where really need to be focusing now as we adapt to radically different circumstances. We might foster socio-emotional learning, for example, by asking each member of our remote team to share their current experience when opening a call, and then facilitating a conversation about what people need from each other to reach shifting goals in novel ways.
Our colleagues who moved their classes online a few weeks ago have had to walk a tightrope between addressing everyone’s disorientation and getting on with their curriculum. Putting socio-emotional learning before the cognitive work helped them acknowledge reality and set the frame for learning. One colleague opened the class with a short meditation. Another invited students to share what it felt like connecting remotely in a document that everyone could see like a live whiteboard. Both told us that those moments made them — and their students — renew their commitment to each other and move on with lively classes. Surveyed afterwards (as it is easy to do with digital tools), their students said that those were the most useful moments of the daily class. This kind of learning isn’t prepared and imparted — a leader facilitates it, but it’s built together.
The combination of these two types of learning makes us competent and keeps us human. Their separation makes us clueless, paranoid, or both. Take the manager who fails to implement a sound plan because they worked through the logistics but did not stop to learn about how people felt about it, or the team that clings to cherished beliefs and ignores new information as a result. These neglects of socio-emotional learning are particularly dangerous in a crisis. Socio-emotional distress, like loneliness or anxiety, can erode our cognitive capacity. That is why leaders and teachers must put first the concerns that — in our career development, and in our session plans — too often still come last.
Most teachers start their career focusing on cognitive learning, getting the content under control. Then they slowly expand their capacity to facilitate socio-emotional learning, hosting spaces where people are freed up to think rather than get filled up with facts. Once they get there, they find themselves more attuned to what their students actually need. Most business leaders are much the same. Executive positions are often filled by those who are lauded for having technical knowledge first; only then are they invited to expand their people management skills. That trajectory often leads both teachers and leaders to fall back (hard) on knowledge and expertise in a crisis, precisely when their ability to focus on people and emotions is what is needed most.
As we noted earlier, we have observed a widespread assumption — a prejudice if you like — that only cognitive learning is possible online. The quicker we counter that prejudice and keep our focus on socio-emotional learning online — in classrooms and in professional settings — the better. Otherwise learning and leading will be diminished and dehumanized just when we need both competence and humanity more than ever. Even crises that appear to require the mastery of new information and implementation of new technology usually require that we hold on to our wits and to each other in order to do that work.
In a crisis, providing reassurance and sustaining performance tend to be leaders’ priorities — and teachers’ too. In those urgent moments, we assume that we must “keep it together” when everything is falling apart. We want to project expertise and avoid incompetence. We do all that, often, because we care. We want to help by keeping things under control. When, really, we are novices like everyone else because no one has been through this crisis before.
A focus on socio-emotional learning allows us to move away from the burden of delivering a product — or not letting students down or keeping a process on track — to the practice of a shared and holistic learning process. That is the kind of learning that lets us process crises and bring about change. It keeps work human and continues the learning we care most about when we are in each other’s physical presence: transforming our businesses and ourselves.
Cultivating a learning culture is not just a catch phrase or a luxury in these times. It is a way to protect your organization and its people. Courage matters as much as competence when, as we are all doing now, we have to take work virtual and we need to keep it human.