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Overcoming Barriers To Change

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 


The posting below is an abstract of a chapter on the barriers

encountered when individuals, teams, and organizations learn. It is

taken from Nelson, Watkins K. & Marsick V. (1993). Overcoming

Barriers to Change. In Sculpting the Learning organization. San

Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The abstract, prepared by Vaibhavi Gala of the Stanford University

Learning Laboratory (SLL) and under the direction of Dr. John Nash, is

another in a series of learning summaries prepared regularly by the Lab.

All abstracts in this series are copyright ?1999 Board of Trustees Leland

Stanford Junior University.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Learning Styles

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Abstracted by Vaibhavi Gala

Stanford Learning Lab



Truncated Learning

Learned Helplessness

Tunnel Vision


In this chapter, the authors identify three barriers encountered when

individuals, teams, and organizations learn: a) truncated learning,

b) learned helplessness, and c) tunnel vision. They discuss

strategies for addressing each barrier and explore some dilemmas that

need to be resolved while designing learning organizations. They

conclude that organizations benefit by paying attention to learning

that goes beyond short-term needs for immediate gains. Changes in

organizational structure & culture may be required to ensure

continuos learning.


A) Barriers to Learning

Truncated Learning: Many learning efforts initiated by organizations

never really take root because they are interrupted or only partially

implemented. Sometimes an idea begins in one part of the

organization, and not all the people necessary for its success are

brought on board. At other times, the vision may not be adequately

articulated Truncated learning also takes place when organizations

adopt many changes at once without regard to the limits of human

malleability. Another source of truncated learning is a premature

evaluation and discomfort with a new norm. Thus, an initiative may be

cut short before change can occur.

Learned Helplessness: When people's efforts at taking control meet

with resistance or even punishment, they often learn 'helplessness'

and become passive. Organizations that have a rigid hierarchy and

overbureaucratization can foster this passivity. Learned helplessness

is not just a feature of individuals. Teams can also learn to

passively let managers direct them.

Martinko and Gardner (1982) have developed a theory of Organizational

Induced Helplessness that sheds light on this complex phenomenon.

People can become desensitized to uncomfortable situations and

therefore not act to change them. Organizations learn to be helpless

when cues from the environment are coupled with a history of success

or failure. People have certain assumptions about likely outcomes and

these assumptions influence behavior.

Many factors affect the attributions made by individuals about their

ability to affect a situation. For example, bureaucratic

organizations make it difficult to do anything not defined by the

rules. Employees feel frustrated and are predisposed toward learned

helplessness even when conditions change. Similarly, when goals are

unrealistic and unachievable, employees learn to underachieve.

Learned helplessness dulls awareness and innovation because people

respond to a new situation with the assumption that they are

incapable of doing anything to change events.

People can learn to counter this helplessness by observing others, by

trial and error, and from job successes. Additionally, the

organization must attend to environmental factors that inhibit

initiative and reward passivity. The authors give the example of

Linda, a secretary at a petrochemical company, who took on a new

assignment after a merger. She initially felt helpless and diffident

about her new responsibilities. However through her peers' help, the

modeling provided by one of them, and supportive environmental

features, Linda was able to turn her learned helplessness around and

become a stronger, more active member in the new company culture.

Tunnel Vision: Tunnel Vision is an inability to see oneself and a

situation from a systems point of view. People are often aware of

their own perspective but not the complexity of the entire system.

At Coopers and Lybrand, the HR advisory group consulting practice is

using outdoor learning camps as a path to becoming a learning

organization. While no short-term outward-bound activity is likely to

bring about the kind of broadened perspective needed to overcome

tunnel vision, there are some promising features. The camps initiate

dialogue about risk taking as a first step toward change. Another key

aspect is reflection on how organizational structures and values

shape the responses of individuals to events. Risk-averse cultures

produce risk-averse managers. Rigid structures allow little room for

experimentation. To overcome systemic faults, the organization must

see the interdependence of these organization-wide structures, norms,

and policies. The camp experiences allowed people to observe how

everyone behaved when faced with an unknown problem and an unknown

solution. They were challenged at the end of the two days to reflect

on what structures drove their behaviors. They looked at the

organizational structures and assumptions that would have to be

created to encourage and support new behaviors. These experiences

created a powerful metaphor to use back at the workplace.

Another approach used by organizations to learn systems thinking is

the use of simulated decision-making games, such as People's Express,

that allow people to see the consequences of their decisions on

different departments in real time. Also, creating cross-functional

teams and providing cross-functional training help develop a broader

system-wide view.

B) Dilemmas in Designing Learning Organizations

Growing number of temporary, part-time, and overtaxed workers:.

Workers who are overburdened with work resist learning because they

do not have the time for it. Similarly, the use of temporary or

part-time workers may also undermine organizational learning. Not

only is the organization less keen in investing in learning for

temporary workers, the employees are also less motivated to learn

because they are not a part of the community. When they do learn, it

is more difficult to embed ideas in the organization's memory because

they move on to another organization.

Changes in organizational structure and culture may be required to

ensure continuos learning While people's intrinsic motivation to

learn is important, it must be supported by a culture that stimulates

learning. Part-time and temporary workers need strategies to collect

and share their learning on the job. Periodic reports, for instance,

can be used to document not only whether objectives were met, but

also what was learnt. Ideally, a process for sharing new ideas and

procedures, such as a computerized suggestion system, could be

created that would be helpful to all employees, temporary or

permanent, full or part-time.

Changing Loyalties: Employees used to sign up with a company for

life. Individuals now often decide to be loyal to themselves and

their skills, not to an organization. They develop and follow a

personal vision, and organizations are only temporary arenas in which

to work out their vision. While learning organizations may not need

lifetime loyalty from all employees, they do need loyalty to quality

and excellence, to doing the job better.

The Paradox of Fear and Entitlement: A new employment trend

emphasizes that workers must earn their jobs or run the risk of being

fired. However, there is a paradox in using fear as a stimulus for

learning, because fear suppresses learning. On the other hand, some

employees believe in entitlement, or that the world, especially their

company owes them a living and such employees may become complacent

and apathetic. Thus, productivity is low when people feel entitled to

their job as well as when people are overanxious or living in fear

for their jobs.

To counter both these contradictory impediments to learning, the fear

and entitlement theory (Bardwick, 1992) proposes that the best form

of motivation is a combination of pressure and support. On surface,

this approach has parallels to the learning organization. But the

subtle mindset underlying it threatens the very fiber of the learning

organization. The fear and entitlement group values continuos

learning, teamwork, and competition in the service of a meritocracy.

However, to change the entitlement mindset, management is encouraged

to use fear repeatedly to return employees to a focus on earning

their jobs. In contrast, a learning organization recognizes that

creating widespread fear and unhealthy competition squelches

learning. Fear will do more harm to those who are already earning

their paycheck every day than to those who are intentionally or

habitually lazy.


Organizations benefit by paying attention to learning that goes

beyond specific techniques, tools, and short-term needs for immediate

gains. People have been passive in their learning, or at best, active

within limits they perceived as acceptable to the organization. They

have often not been able or prepared to take a longer-term systems

view. In building a learning organization, we must be careful not to

truncate learning processes, or foster learned helplessness, or to

tolerate tunnel vision.

Better planning can reduce truncated learning. Managers should be

persistent in efforts to help individuals and the organization draw

out lessons learned even when an initiative in abandoned. The problem

of learned helplessness can be worked out at a micro-level, through

counseling, informal interaction, training, and referrals to employee

assistance. Organizationally, expectations are shaped by the overt

and covert messages sent through the way jobs and reward systems are

designed, and the behaviors modeled down the line through management.

The antidote to tunnel vision is systems thinking, but that is not a

easy skill to learn unless organizations design work that demands and

rewards it. If employees see the direct results of their work, they

begin to understand why they must work more closely with other

departments and functions. Likewise, organizations must create the

conditions that enable to learn from one another and work together

across functional lines in a systemic way.