Why lessons are not so easy to learn

by TheEditor

Categories: Management

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Internalisation 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 generalise and apply the learned lesson in various situations.
  7. 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 internalised.
  8. 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.
  9. Resilience to backsliding: It is 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.
  10. 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 is 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 behavioural 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.

  1. 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 behaviour is commensurately elevated, thereby expediting the learning process.
  2. 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 behaviour if it is congruent with their perceived identity, enhancing the speed and durability of the learning process.
  3. 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 behaviour or beliefs, thereby facilitating more efficient learning and adaptation.
  4. 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.
  5. Feedback loop of self-efficacy: Experiencing successful behaviour change in response to a painful or highly significant event can also enhance self-efficacy, which is a crucial element for sustaining long-term behaviour change according to Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory.
  6. 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 behaviour change more feasible.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 behavioural 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.

Genuine learning

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.

Genuine learning is an iterative process characterized by both progression and regression. I look deeper.

  1. Iterative nature of learning: The brain doesn’t always solidify learning instantly. Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganise and form new neural connections, is an ongoing process. This means that new behaviours or thought patterns, even when understood and desired, might not be immediately or consistently implemented.
  2. Hierarchical learning progression: On the path to full mastery, individuals might progress from superficial understanding to deeper, more nuanced comprehension. Initial lessons might address overt behaviours, while subsequent lessons delve into underlying beliefs, values, or systemic factors.
  3. Exposure and reinforcement: Behavioural theories, such as operant conditioning, suggest that reinforcement—whether positive (rewards) or negative (punishments or aversive outcomes)—strengthens behaviour. As individuals encounter varied scenarios post an initial mistake, repeated reinforcement of the “correct” behaviour or thinking pattern can solidify the learning.
  4. Regression under stress: Stress or unfamiliar contexts can lead to regression—a temporary return to previous behaviours. This doesn’t necessarily indicate that the lesson hasn’t been learned but rather that the new learning hasn’t been sufficiently anchored to withstand particular pressures.
  5. Gradient of change: Subsequent mistakes might be lesser versions of the original. This gradient can indicate that the lesson is being internalised progressively. For instance, if the initial mistake was a major oversight in a project, subsequent mistakes might be minor oversights—indicative of increased attention but not yet full mastery.
  6. Cognitive dissonance: This psychological theory posits that individuals feel discomfort when holding contradictory beliefs or behaviours. Over time, as one recognises the disparity between their actions and their learned lessons, they might adjust behaviours to align more with their understanding, further solidifying the learning.
  7. Resilience building: Each iteration—facing the scenario, making a choice, experiencing the outcome, reflecting—strengthens resilience. Resilience isn’t just about avoiding mistakes but navigating them effectively when they occur.

In essence, the path to genuine, resilient learning is paved with experiences—both successes and failures. Each iteration offers an opportunity to reinforce the lesson, refine understanding, and build resilience. This dynamic, evolving process is a testament to the complexity of human cognition, behaviour, and growth.

Organisational sluggishness with lessons

The phenomenon of organisational inertia in the context of lesson-learning is a well-studied subject, revealing that organisations often fail to adapt quickly or effectively despite the availability of valuable lessons. Several factors contribute to this sluggishness:

  1. Bounded rationality and information overload: Organisations, like individuals, suffer from bounded rationality. The sheer volume of data that needs to be processed, especially in large or complex organisations, can act as a significant impediment to rapid lesson-learning.
  2. Organisational culture: A culture that does not encourage transparency, risk-taking, or learning from failure can stymie quick adaptation. The “blame culture” often seen in organisations can lead to a reluctance to report or discuss failures, effectively preventing collective learning.
  3. Principal-agent problem: Employees (agents) may not be as invested in the organisation’s long-term health as the leaders (principals), leading to a lack of motivation to learn or adapt.
  4. Structural Inertia: Organisational structures, once established, resist change due to sunk costs, established processes, and vested interests. This inertia can significantly delay the incorporation of lessons into practice.
  5. Cognitive Dissonance at organisational level: Organisations may also experience a form of collective cognitive dissonance when presented with information that contradicts existing practices or beliefs, making them slower to adapt.
  6. Path dependency: Past investments and decisions can create a form of lock-in that makes it difficult to change course, even when it becomes clear that a different approach would be beneficial.
  7. Resource constraints: Lack of time, manpower, or financial resources can all serve as barriers to implementing lessons learned.
  8. Political barriers: Internal politics can often impede the rapid implementation of lessons, particularly if doing so would challenge the authority or competence of key stakeholders.
  9. Systems complexity: The intricate interplay between various organisational sub-systems can render straightforward lesson implementation impossible without unintended negative consequences.
  10. Time lag in observable effects: Even if lessons are learned and actions are taken, the benefits may not be immediately observable due to various lag effects, making it appear as if the organisation is not learning.

The slow pace of lesson-learning in organisations can thus be attributed to a multifaceted interplay of cognitive limitations, structural barriers, cultural factors, and resource constraints. These challenges often require coordinated, multidisciplinary interventions that take into account the intricate relationships between these variables. From a consultancy standpoint, applying systems thinking and change management theories can be instrumental in addressing these multifactorial issues.

Takeaway summary

In the journey of understanding what it means to truly learn a lesson, we must recognise that the process is intricate and multidimensional. To many, the concept might appear simple: make a mistake, recognise the error, and then refrain from repeating it. However, beneath this surface, a complex interplay of cognition, behaviour, and emotion unfolds.

True learning, the kind that brings about lasting change, isn’t instantaneous. It is an iterative journey, one where an individual might oscillate between progress and regression. Think of it as navigating a labyrinth rather than walking a straight path. Along the way, one might encounter familiar mistakes, but each iteration offers new insights, refining and deepening understanding. Sometimes, under stress or in unfamiliar terrains, old habits resurface, challenging the lessons previously learned. Yet, even these regressions are instrumental—they highlight areas of vulnerability, paving the way for strengthened resilience.

Furthermore, the depth of learning varies. Initial lessons might focus on rectifying overt behaviours, but as one delves deeper, they start addressing underlying beliefs, emotions, and systemic factors. This progression from the superficial to the profound is akin to mastering an art. Initial strokes might be tentative, even faltering, but with practice and reflection, they become more confident and nuanced.

Another facet to consider is the gradient of change. Subsequent mistakes post an initial error might not be exact replicas but muted echoes, indicating a movement towards mastery. This gradient, a testament to the brain’s remarkable neuroplasticity, shows that new behaviours and thought patterns are being adopted, albeit gradually.

In essence, the journey of learning from our mistakes is neither linear nor swift. It is a dance of two steps forward, one step back. Yet, with each step, each turn, individuals refine their understanding, bolster resilience, and inch closer to genuine, enduring learning. As we navigate life’s labyrinth, it is essential to approach this journey with patience, introspection, and the understanding that true learning is as much about the journey as it is about the destination.

Supplemental reading:

  • Simon, H. A. (1955). A behavioural model of rational choice. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 69(1), 99-118.
  • Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press.
  • Penrose, E. T. (1959). The theory of the growth of the firm. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Simon, H. A. (1962). The architecture of complexity. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 106(6), 467-482.
  • Melzack, R., & Wall, P. D. (1965). Pain mechanisms: A new theory. Survey of Anesthesiology, 9(6), 394-395.
  • Jensen, M. C., & Meckling, W. H. (1976). Theory of the firm: Managerial behaviour, agency costs and ownership structure. Journal of Financial Economics, 3(4), 305-360.
  • Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioural change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191.
  • Elster, J. (1979). Ulysses and the Sirens: Studies in Rationality and Irrationality. Cambridge University Press.
  • Hannan, M. T., & Freeman, J. (1984). Structural inertia and organisational change. American Sociological Review, 149-164.
  • Arthur, W. B. (1989). Competing technologies, increasing returns, and lock-in by historical events. The Economic Journal, 99(394), 116-131.
  • Sterman, J. D. (1989). Modeling managerial behaviour: Misperceptions of feedback in a dynamic decision making experiment. Management Science, 35(3), 321-339.
  • Pfeffer, J. (1992). Managing with power: Politics and influence in organisations. Harvard Business Press.
  • Laibson, D. (1997). Golden eggs and hyperbolic discounting. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 112(2), 443-477.
  • Rangel, A., Camerer, C., & Montague, P. R. (2008). A framework for studying the neurobiology of value-based decision making.
  • Roozendaal, B., McEwen, B. S., & Chattarji, S. (2009). Stress, memory and the amygdala. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 423-433.
  • Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(7), 545-556.Schein, E. H. (2010). Organisational culture and leadership (Vol. 2). John Wiley & Sons.
  • Oyserman, D., & Destin, M. (2010). Identity-based motivation: Implications for intervention. The Counseling Psychologist, 38(7), 1001-1043.

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