Tip #3
Creating a Positive Learning Culture

The learning culture of your agency is represented by the value you as a supervisor, and your agency as a whole, place on learning. Learning culture is an element of the larger culture of the organization, or the shared beliefs, norms, assumptions, and values that shape both the expectations for performance and for workplace behavior.

The climate of your agency is seen in how staff describe and feel about their organization and their work environment as a collective. In essence, how the values, beliefs, and norms are interpreted and perceived by the staff you supervise.

The elements of an organization’s culture can be communicated overtly through direct teaching, and covertly through ritual, myth, and symbolism. The climate is then created by the collective interpretation and perception of these elements. Although organizational culture change takes a while, you as a supervisor can have a more immediate impact on the climate of your team.

Stories from the Field

At one of my first positions in child welfare, I worked on a team where the learning culture could be described as rigid. The organization was particularly resistant to learning new practices. This was communicated both overtly and indirectly. For example, there was clear direction not to adopt emerging evidence-informed practices. This belief was communicated when we were told that trainings and other learning opportunities were not a productive use of time. When I did attend professional development events, there was no coverage of my workload, which required me to attend to urgent situations while in training. I became concerned when I noticed that the work team remained tied to outdated practices that were passed from one staff member to another, resulting in a climate that was stressed. Turnover was high and new evidence-informed practices that sought to meet the needs of children and families were not incorporated into practice.

This experience greatly informed my approach when I became a supervisor. Because I remembered how much I longed to work in an environment that valued growth and learning, I made intentional efforts to create a climate that was flexible and constructive, and one that supported learning. I wanted staff to strategize improved ways to work with families and to reflect upon their own practice with a critical eye. I discovered this goal was not without challenges. I started by encouraging staff to attend learning opportunities. I was met with ambivalence. Staff generally wanted to attend trainings however their caseloads made the prospect of losing a day of work overwhelming. To minimize this struggle, I committed to ensuring coverage so that staff were able to not only physically attend trainings, but also be fully present without the worry of dealing with urgent matters back at the office. This required more work initially from me, however my staff learned and grew and performed at higher levels when they were able to apply the knowledge they learned.

The next challenge that I encountered was transferring the learning into practice. Studies find that we only retain 10-15% of what we learn in training. To enhance the transfer of learning, I met with my staff before they attended the training and set an expectation that they bring back to the team key points that they learned. I then had the staff either write-up a short document or present in a staff meeting. To further this practice, I was intentional in my parallel processing. I also dedicated some of my time to both learn and communicate up-to-date knowledge to help create a climate open and supportive to learning and change.

The final challenge relates to incorporating new practices in a bureaucratic agency with many layers that require approval for changes in practice. When staff were exposed to new evidence-informed practices that they were not able to implement with ease, they expressed frustration. To minimize this frustration, I worked with staff to find ways that the new practice fit in our existing policy, and I advocated to upper management to incorporate new practices to allow for a functional and constructive culture that allowed for flexibility. The outcome was that my unit was able to pilot many new practices and be part of writing procedure and policy for the entire state. These efforts were not easy but I ultimately felt that they helped to contribute to a positive learning culture.

Take Action

Take a moment to think about your current practice. Is learning supported? How do you communicate that staff will be attending a training or learning opportunity? Are staff encouraged to share feedback about how practice could be improved?

Write down the things you are already doing to communicate the value of learning and identify two things you could do to enhance the commitment to practice improvement and skill development.

Identify one realistic strategy you can implement within the next month to enhance the learning culture of your team.