Most of the skills we need to do our jobs — the ability to complete tasks, collaborate with colleagues, circumvent obstacles, and plan for future assignments — are skills we learn at work, not before. But when employees learn by doing, they don’t always recognize when and how the learning is happening — and likewise do not consider the best ways to optimize their learning as they carry out tasks.
Researchers at the Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA), an initiative of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, are investigating how to make on-the-job learning a richer experience. Examining a variety of professional contexts, including education, HGSE Professor David Perkins; Michele Rigolizzo, Ed.M.’10; and Marga Biller, Ed.M.’81, explore how employees can approach different tasks to achieve quality results and fuel future learning. Their research suggests that there are three stances, or mindsets, that people adopt when approaching a task at work: completion, performance, and development.
Different tasks require different stances, depending on their importance and the likelihood that they will recur. And as employees progress from the completion to the performance to the development stance, deeper learning occurs.
For many employees, however, learning falls short. Fear of failure, impersonal work environments, and monotonous tasks are just a few of the reasons why workers don’t progress past the completion stance. If teacher preparation time is limited, then a substitute doesn’t have adequate time to understand the Smartboard. If a supervisor is pressured from her superiors to finish meetings quickly, then she won’t try out new ways of running the meetings or take the time to reflect on their design and effectiveness.
Still, the development stance is ideal for learning purposes. It encourages employees to assess their processes and to strive to improve. So how can organizations foster it?
Leaders who recognize that their employees are stuck in the completion or performance stance can try to pinpoint what precisely is hindering them — and then think about the surrounding factors that might be contributing to that issue. If workers fear failure, can supervisors make the office more welcoming? If tasks seem too tedious, can leaders offer incentives to innovative employees?
Most simply, leaders can communicate directly that they encourage a development stance — quality work and active reflection on that work. Leaders can model this approach themselves, and they can implement systems that allow easy collaboration and feedback between colleagues. The organization can also set aside time for reflection on completed tasks. With an emphasis on the development stance, their employees can remain engaged, lifelong learners.