The Value of the Learning Culture

As Arie De Geus, head of planning for Royal Dutch/Shell once said, "the ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage" an organization may have (as cited in Senge, 2006, p. 4). Senge (2006) goes on to state that organizations that "discover how to tap people's commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization" are the ones that will not only survive, but thrive in the future (p. 4).

So what does a learning culture look like, and how can it be cultivated?

Senge (2006) describes a learning organization as one where members "continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together" (p. 3). To create an effective learning culture, I believe that four main factors should be considered: 1) The balance between exploration and exploitation, 2) Survival anxiety (vs. learning anxiety), 3) A growth mindset (vs. a fixed mindset), and 4) Psychological safety.

Exploration and Exploitation

Traditionally, organizations tend to focus on exploitation, doing what has been "proven" to work by repeating established processes. However, to truly excel in the long-term, exploration, including a learning-focus "where you share information, actively develop individuals, and promote curiosity" (Smerek, 2018, p. 2) is necessary. Interestingly, though these two models can coexist in the organization, and both have their roles to play, more often than not exploitation is "narrowly pursued" while exploration is left to the wayside. By embracing exploration, new ways of thinking are generated that can help organizations adapt and endure.

Survival Anxiety vs. Learning Anxiety

"only the paranoid survive" - Andy Grove, Former Intel CEO

Learning is more likely to occur when "survival anxiety" is greater than "learning anxiety."

Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that it will be too difficult, that we will look stupid in the attempt, or that we will have to part from old habits that have worked for us in the past. Learning something new can cast us as the deviant in the groups we belong to. It can threaten our self-esteem and, in extreme cases, even our identity. (Schein, as quoted in Coutu, 2002, p. 104)

However, if the fear of survival is greater than the fear that comes with learning in an organization, learning can occur. This situation happens either because of increased survival anxiety (such as the threat of losing one's job) or because of decreased learning anxiety (such as by the creation of a safer learning environment [psychological safety]).

Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset

Those with a fixed mindset "are more likely to believe that people are born with a fixed quantity of intelligence and that personality is set in stone" (Smerek, 2018, p. 58). These types of people focus on performance goals when challenge-seeking and are "more likely to be worried about being judged as competent (or incompetent) because their performance [might] reveal their innate ability" (Smerek, 2018, p. 58). In contrast, those with a growth mindset believe that effort, and not innate talent, is "the primary driver of success," seeing intelligence as "improvable" and the mind as a "muscle" to be exercised (Smerek, 2018, p. 58). Subscribers of this theory focus on learning goals and consider setbacks as useful feedback to improve themselves. Organizations that foster the latter mindset actively learn from their "failures" to better their processes, culture, and outcomes.

Psychological Safety

To feel psychological safe is to be able to admit mistakes, challenge the norm, and learn without fear of reprimand, embarrassment, or ridicule (Edmondson, 1999). If psychological safety is missing from the organizational environment, there is a failure to express concerns and communicate, a lack of mutual respect and shared vision, no baseline of trust, stress and underestimation of unknown variables, and intimidation stemming from the hierarchy of power. However, if psychological safety and respect are nurtured, the environment becomes one in which members of an organization can explore ideas, speak up, broaden their perception, engage in deeper discussions, and innovate freely.

Ways to Cultivate a Learning Culture

Okay, so we know that balancing exploration and exploitation, ensuring that survival anxiety is greater than learning anxiety, a growth mindset, and psychological safety are important to creating a learning environment. But how can an organization begin to cultivate a learning culture? Some (if not all) of these suggestions may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised as to how many are either implemented poorly or are nonexistent in organizations.

  • Adopt an employee focus - when your people feel cared for, they are more willing to learn, improve, and go above and beyond for you.

  • Take professional development seriously - in doing so, employees will see that their development is valued by your organization.

  • Reward continuous learning - not only can this make someone feel good, but it creates a climate where critical thinking is encouraged.

  • Allow employees to take control over their own professional development - if employees are permitted to dictate their own learning, they are more likely to choose opportunities that they are truly interested in, instead of wasting resources on training that they do not care for.

  • Promote mentorship - mentorship not only encourages knowledge sharing between experts and learners, but provides professional socialization and support that facilitate success.

  • Give meaningful and constructive feedback - you don't want to just tell your employee that they are doing something wrong, or on the other end, use a feel-good approach. Instead, make them aware of what they are doing well (or not well), why, and specific directions on how to improve (if applicable).

  • Lead by example - this one is simple; don't ask someone to do what you wouldn't or don't do yourself.

  • Encourage knowledge sharing - if everyone shares what they know, point of failures are diminished, and your team(s) are likely to be more productive.

  • Hire curious people - by hiring curious people, you'll know that they have the drive to learn. (Chamorro-Premuzic & Bersin, 2018; Cordiner, n.d.)


Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Bersin, J. (2018). 4 ways to create a learning culture on your team. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Cordiner, S. (n.d.). 17 ways to cultivate a learning culture in your organisation. Retrieved from

Coutu, D.L. (2002). The anxiety of learning: An interview with Edgar Schein. Harvard Business Review, 80(3), 100-6.

Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44, 350-83.

Senge, P.M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization (Rev. ed.). New York: Doubleday.

Smerek, R.E. (2018). Organizational learning and performance: The science and practice of building a learning culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Anna Darelli-Anderson

University of Utah

Department of Surgery

Office of Surgical Education

30 N. 1900 E. 3B110 

Salt Lake City, UT 84132


© 2020 by Anna Darelli-Anderson