The ability of a worker to learn is getting new focus from employers, as they anticipate accelerating changes to jobs with the introduction of generative AI and other technologies. Accenture, for example, asks every job candidate to name something they learned in the past six months as a test for this learning agility. “If people don't demonstrate that they have learning agility, you can't come work here because—especially now, this technology came fast and it's moving faster,” Ellyn Shook, Accenture’s chief leadership and human resources officer, told us recently. “The learning is going to have to be continuous.”
To better understand what makes someone a good learner and how organizations can increase workers’ learning agility, we reached out to Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, chief innovation officer at BetterUp, which provides coaching and related services. Kellerman is a medical doctor by training and co-author with Martin Seligman of Tomorrowmind, which highlights the psychological skills we need to adapt as work changes. Here is a transcript of our discussion, edited for clarity:
What makes someone a good learner, in this context of learning agility in the workplace?
If we think about the individual, there are individual factors that are more like personality factors, so more stable. There are individual factors we can change and influence, so more states than traits. And then there's the context around them, there's the team around them, and there's the organization around them. We can talk about what influences learning agility at each of those levels.
At the individual, personality level, one of the biggest factors is something called openness to experience. So in the classic big five of personality, which has the acronym OCEAN, the O is for openness to experience. And it describes a type of person that's really excited about new ideas, new people, and new adventures and walks around with a bit more open-eyed curiosity.
That is harder to change than other parts of us. Think about that from an organizational lens. It comes down to selection: how can you select for people who naturally have that disposition, which will make them excited about learning new things and more naturally drawn to new ideas and opportunities?
Our business at BetterUp is much more about what we can change about people. So there are aspects of the personality we can change, and then there are these developmental states that we can really influence through coaching and that's what we study and what we know a lot about. Within that, there are a few things to call out around individual developmental factors that influence learning agility. One would be cognitive agility, which is very akin to learning agility. In some definitions, they're really the same thing.
It's our ability to move from one idea to the next, to not get stuck at any one altitude of problem solving. It correlates very highly with learning agility or desire and ability to learn and pick up new things. That's something that we target frequently with coaching. We help people learn how to get their minds unstuck from being in one place vis-a-vis a decision vis-a-vis an opinion, to challenge that and to become more flexible. More broadly, our mental flexibility is a sign of wellbeing and maturity. Another aspect of learning agility at the individual level is novelty seeking. That also relates to the first thing we talked about—openness to experience—but it can be carved out and you can help people gain more behaviors around novelty seeking. In our book, we introduced this idea of creativity hygiene, which is a way of living in the world that predisposes you toward richer and deeper creativity outputs.
One of them is how do you introduce more novelty into your life? There are the serendipitous discoveries that will happen. And the more we are exposed to novelty, it also nudges us in the direction of the positive aspects of that when we're doing it in lower-stakes way. We talk about new ways of commuting, about ordering something different off the menu, watching something completely different on TV, really trying something different out of your comfort zone and seeing what good things come of it. That's similar to a way we want to show up at work, which is there's a new system our peer is using, what can we learn about it? How's it helping them versus pulling back from those new systems and those ideas because of a threat they introduced to us.
Those are some of the individual trait and state factors. And then, as I mentioned, there are team and org factors too.
Let's go to team and org factors in a minute. But, first, you said for cognitive openness to experience, it's harder to change and so it comes down to screening. I know Accenture asks every job candidate, 'What have you learned within the last six months?' as a way to do that. Is that the sort of thing you're thinking of?
I'm actually thinking more of personality measures that have been well developed to assess openness to experience. But if you're looking at more of the developmental side of things, for sure, that is a great question, 'What have you learned and are you excited about recently? 'What are new systems and ways of working you've brought into your work recently?' might be an even more pointed question to look at that and get a sense for a priori the person's adaptability and desire to grow and change with new systems in particular.
You talked about cognitive agility and the possibility of coaching people to be able to move more fluidly from one idea to the next. Can you share an example of a tactic for coaching someone on that?
Yes, there are many different ways that we go wrong with not being agile cognitively. Let me give you a metaphor and then we can break down some of the pathologies of agility. One of the marks of agility is being able to go back and forth between the forest and the trees. We're scanning the forest for opportunity, we're scanning for signals of change. It might be we're listening in this context for the new tools, systems, and companies that people are using in my industry. Then the tree is, 'Now I have the information to decide this is how I'm going to work or this is the approach I'm going to take and I focus there.' Some of us are more prone to get stuck on the tree and some of us are more prone to get stuck on the forest, but really the goal is to move back and forth between them.
For people who are stuck on the forest, that's where we get into analysis paralysis. Maybe in this case, 'There are so many tools, they're changing so quickly, how do I even pick one?' And I'm about to pick this one, and then my friend tells me at another company, they're using this one, and so I get lost in the swirl. For other people who are stuck in the trees, it's more about, 'I can't change from the way I'm doing things. I'm too wedded to what I'm doing now. And I feel too much friction at the idea of shifting to a new way of being.' So, as you can imagine, the tools those people need are very, very different. For the people who are stuck in one place too much—which is probably related to the learning agility mindset—how do you get people excited about a new way of doing it versus the old one that they had?
There are a couple of specific strategies that we help people use. There is some psycho-education that we're doing with people writ large about the pace of change. What does that mean for you personally and what does that mean for what it takes to succeed? We want to help people wrap their heads around—in our book, we call it the whitewater—this environment of constant change and uncertainty so that it's not just about moving from this system to that system. So that the microcosm of the need for change you're in doesn't become the be-all and the end-all of the growth work that you're doing. You see it much more as a broader project of becoming a more cognitively agile person because you're going to need that for the rest of your career and more and more that's going to be key to your success. That unlocks a different level of motivation and perspective that's really helpful to open people up to change.
Then, in terms of strategies that get people to unhook from an idea, sometimes you have to challenge beliefs and fears that are keeping them there. Because there's a certain level of irrationality that keeps us stuck in doing something that doesn't serve us. And it does often come down to fears about what will go wrong if I do that. Having safer and expanding circles of experimentation where you can test and try something new and see actually nothing bad happen and maybe even something good happened. So how do you extend that sphere of risk taking for each individual to honor the beliefs and the feelings that are keeping them there, but actually actively push and test them?
You mentioned earlier the team and organizational dimensions and influences on learning agility. What can organizations and team leaders do to increase learning agility of their members?
The first piece is the team leader themselves. It's very important that they be someone who models agility in their own way of doing it and who celebrates it. You need a leader who embodies this mindset, who makes other team members feel safe that this is a good thing to do, that they won't be punished for doing that, but also that this is adaptive and it's what's going to make them and the team successful. Simple ways to do that in team meetings are to highlight people trying new systems, have them come in and demo for the team the ways it could work, have the team leader talk about what they like about it and talk about examples of where bringing that kind of a thing in has worked. We want the team leader also to have a complex way of evaluating the success of experimentation as particularly with new systems.
It may be that the team tries a tool and it's a failure everyone, it caused a lot of stress and it didn't produce the yield and the outcome. That doesn't necessarily mean that's how the team leader should tell that story. It may be that actually there were good things about that, and it may be that there weren't, but they still need to tell the story in a way that doesn't shut down other people's willingness to try those things. So be very, very mindful of the fact that as a leader your sense of any negative sentiment you put out about an experiment is going to be amplified because of that power distance.
Some of that comes down to the idea of psychological safety and what Amy Edmondson has talked about. Some of it also comes down to the individual leader's resilience, and cognitive agility is one of the key drivers in a resilient mindset. We know that when leaders are more resilient, their teams are more resilient, their teams are much less burned out, their teams are more committed to the organization just by virtue of reporting to someone who embodies that readiness for change and that ability to absorb and maybe even grow stronger because of those changes.
Is there anything you'd add in terms of what organizations need to do to support learning agility?
There are systems and processes and then there's culture on the systems and processes side. Truly agile organizations' infrastructure is built in ways that you can pull from different components and plug in new parts without having to do a massive overhaul. The opposite of that would be a healthcare system that's on one electronic medical records set of infrastructure and to change that is a five-year project. You're not really going to try to experiment with new tools that are not compatible with that system. There's already a massive constraint. There are reasons in healthcare that those things are in place, but it's a helpful thought experiment to say what does the opposite of that look like? Now, setting aside systems and processes, those things get there because of choices that are made within the context of a culture and cultures that encourage and foster a learning mindset. They're highly resilient cultures that are taking in information from the outside world at a rapid pace, metabolizing at a rapid pace, and then generating experiments and disseminating experiments in response to that rapidly as well.
Some of the marks of a company that works like that would be there's experimentation happening at all levels. You might have a new tool that is actually being adopted by an individual contributor on a contracts team that then catches on. Word spreads, leaders share it with other leaders, they look for new applications, and then you have a very lightning fast uptake of things that are working well across an organization. What gets in the way of that is more siloed cultures, where there's a fear of experimentation more broadly and cultures where a lot of people's value is generated by saying 'No.' In some of the more traditional regulatory agencies and regulatory industries, we find the need to shift that mindset from 'My value is about saying no,' to 'My value is about you getting to the best outcome for the business. And actually sometimes that means saying yes to a new way of doing things.' That's an important mindset shift that opens up more room for learning and growth and a rapid pace of experimentation.
Recent research has shown an elevated level of stress and anxiety among workers concerned that AI threatens the quality and security of their jobs. What could organizations be doing about that?
The first thing is that we need to understand that fear a little bit better. We have some of our own research on this. We've been talking about 8,000 FTEs in the US as far as their opinions, mindsets toward AI. What we have seen is that the opinions that people have are more mirroring the kind of hype cycle of any new trend in particular where there was a lot of optimism at first and there was a crash of distrust, and now there's sort of this plateau of more reasonable expectations and attitudes towards AI. We need to get our heads around what's actually happening in the ways we think about it, which from our data seems more like the ways we think about any new tool that's coming to the fore.
The broader question of how does an organization communicate about this new tool then also becomes one of the broader project of how to communicate to your organization about any significant new change coming to your industry, to your company, etc. We know that transparency helps, to be honest about what you see and what you know and what you don't know, to celebrate these qualities of agility and resilience within the organization that have helped and will help respond to change that's to come. And to be hopeful and optimistic about where these new tools in this case or any new change can take us. So to paint the picture of what does success look like for the organization with these tools in mind. Fortunately with generative AI, we have a lot of examples of ways that they're driving productivity for people, ways they're doing positive things for people that we can lean into as a source of optimism, but it's got to be within the context of honoring that this is significant change and honoring that there's a lot that we still don't know about what these tools mean for any of us.
You've written in your book that prospection—the ability to anticipate and plan for the future—is an essential skill. How does one gain or cultivate that?
We have been very fortunate to help build the science of prospection in partnership with a wide array of behavioral scientists. One of them is Roy Baumeister. He's one of the most widely published psychologists of our time and he and two of his colleagues have positioned effective prospection—which they call pragmatic prospection—as happening in two phases. The first phase, ideally this is naturalistically what happened, but its happens that we vary from it depending on the ways that we're not optimized. That first phase is fast, it's expansive and it's optimistic, and he calls that 'dream big.' That might be the order of seconds to minutes. The second phase is slower. It's more deliberative and it can tend toward the pessimistic and that's 'get real.' We all go through that. You can imagine if I asked you the question, 'Where would you like your career to be in 10 years?'
You might think quite big and optimistically. Then within the order of seconds to minutes, that might shift into evaluative, deliberative. Is that really possible? How would I actually make that happen? Both of those processes are important in doing prospection well. Many of us in fact, foreshorten the dream big period. It gets too small and too narrow too quickly, and we don't get to imagining a wide enough array of possibilities. If we're not imagining a possibility, then we're certainly not planning for it. So a lot of our work with individuals and organizations is how do you dream even bigger? How do you expand that initial realm of possibility? When we think about something like generative AI as one example, what is generative AI going to mean for my job? While there are some really bad things you could come up with, there are also some really incredible things you could come up with and there's a lot in between.
To start, we need to be able to see that full spectrum of possibility and not foreshorten it too much. The second piece though around the 'get real 'is that's actually where we see the biggest difference in behavior between people who are really good at prospection as measured by team and professional outcomes versus people who are not. People who are really great at prospection spend a lot more time planning, evaluating, deliberating, making bets against possible futures. That's not necessarily intuitive because we could say in a world of so much uncertainty, what's even the point of planning? Is there a better strategy? But even though a lot of those plans end up not being things that you execute on, it turns out we just still need to do more against more possibilities and a wider array and a more rapid array of changing possibilities. That is a very important learning. Just like there's decision fatigue, we can hit planning fatigue. Expanding our capacity to be able to plan more, to revise those plans, to plan again, to not get frustrated at wasted effort of planning and accept that's part of what it looks like to live in uncertainty is also the job to be done.
That calls to mind scenario planning, where organizations plot different potential futures and then analyze what they would need to pursue them or react to them. Most of the scenarios don't wind up happening, but the organizations enter the future with a higher level of preparedness. Is that similar to what you're referring to?
Yes, totally. What scenario planning does is it overlays really well onto what I just said, but at the org level it helps people think really much bigger. It expands the universe of possibilities into some very unlikely but also potentially catastrophic possible futures and then also potentially very impressive and exciting futures. On the planning side it says, okay, well if that outlier were to happen, what would we have to do differently today to get ahead of it? At an individual level, that's really something we can do for ourselves too: when you think to those very unlikely possibilities, but that could lead to something extremely good or extremely not good for you individually, what are things you could do, small very hedged bets you could place today against those possibilities to position yourself better should they come to pass? That's what is done at the corporate level and has had some success and at the individual level or at the team level, there are ways that we can tailor—with less resources applied, but toward those less likely outcomes. Sometimes there are high leverage things you could do today that in a year would actually be tremendously beneficial to have thought that through and have done that.
What's an example of that on an individual level?
I'll give you a company example with an individual involved in the company. So let's say the scenario is that there's some new technology that could mean that that company is going to go under and there's some new technology that actually could mean that that company is going to have to scale dramatically really, really rapidly. If they can do that, they'll be wildly successful. So if you know that, then you can say, 'Okay, well if we did need to scale dramatically, what are some of the pieces we could do today that would make our life much easier in six or eight months?' And it's one example. Maybe it has something to do with scaling up your workforce and maybe there's some part of that workforce that there are third parties that could help you scale that quickly. Could you today figure out who are those third parties you might work with to scale workforce quickly? Could you today put in place some sort of relationship or even a preliminary contract, get some of that work done? That might take you a matter of a few hours over the course of a couple of months, but then in six months, if it's all green lights and go, they're ready to hit the ground running, they can scale that up much more quickly and you've saved yourself essentially two months cost of getting that up and running.
Broadly, mental health and physical health among workers are at troublingly low levels. From your research, what could organizations be doing to better address that?
I feel pretty strongly about this idea of workforce sustainability, that we need to think about peak performance in line with what does sustainable performance look like? And not expect that sudden big spikes in the output we expect won't take a toll on our employees unless we are thinking about that in a sustainable way through a psychometric lens. I think about sustainability as wellbeing, a psychological wellbeing, and there's 30 years of science on that, if not more depending on how you define it. What it takes for us to be well and live well and psychologically have power and resources ready to go. Organizations that design themselves and offer support for employees in line with that wellbeing, that build for that sort of well-balanced, well-resourced employee mind will see that sustainable performance over time. If employees are starting out with a deficit of wellbeing, there is in some cases an urgent need to address that almost psychological debt of the workforce that's been accrued, to help people get access to mental health resources and care. But it shouldn't be instead of investing in the go-forward sustainable approach, which is a different project than actually helping treat clinical conditions that exist already. In the public health language, it's the difference between primary prevention versus secondary and tertiary prevention.
The primary prevention is which part of it?
Primary prevention would be to prevent those deficits from developing to begin with. If you're doing that well, then you're performing sustainably.