Vicarious Learning

By August 23, 2014Business

As you know from my blog, I’m no introvert, and I’m not drawn to being a reflective learner by preference. But lots of my friends are still reading Quiet, and I know that lots of introverts hate the sort of learning that feels like making a fool of yourself in public, so I thought you’d be interested in this.

10 years ago now, Melissa Carr and I designed the fabulous Future Leaders Experience at Ashridge. Over the years we’ve done lots of research on how it works, most recently with the brilliant Prof Tricia Riddell from the University of Reading. You may have read the report or stories about it, but one detail may not have been obvious.

What we found when we measured heart-rate and learning was that the correlation between them held even when the participant had been watching a critical incident rather than participating in it directly. So while heart-rate tended to be higher for those in the hot seat each time – and therefore the degree of learning gleaned – as long as those watching felt involved enough for their own heart-rate to be affected, they learned too.

This is a really important finding. I think both extroverts and introverts collude on training programmes about regarding ‘reflective’ learning as time off. Organisations certainly do – looking out of the window is not generally considered to be ‘working’. And in order to eke out valuable training spend, many L&D departments reckon that the more contact time on courses, the better value for money. I don’t want to conflate the activities of reflection and observation, but I do want to make a point about people who prefer to learn at one remove. Too often reflectors are fobbed off with a brief walk or the opportunity to write some quiet notes and that’s that. They may even be forced into active learning exercises, on the grounds that it’s good for them to feel their learning edge. So our neuro-biology findings are actually a triumph for people who hate the limelight so much they will avoid learning opportunities that require it. Because this research shows you how you can opt in and opt out at the same time.

Here is an example. You and a colleague are both really struggling with someone in your team. You’ve had a lot of whinge sessions by the water-cooler and over the odd pint, and your colleague reckons it’s time you tackled the thing head on. You could just say ‘Good luck, mate, not my thing.’ Or you could agree that you will coach them through it, attend the meeting as moral support, and give them feedback afterwards about how you thought they did. Your heart would certainly be going like the clappers while you watched your colleague edge their way through. And if you ever did have to have a tricky conversation in your own right, you’d have gained the neurobiological muscle memory you need to feel resourced to do so.

Maybe this still sounds too scary. Instead you might simply focus on raising either your level of investment in a work situation, or the risk that you might be called upon to get involved. So you could help plan an event or write a speech, or offer to be a colleague’s emergency expert if they get stuck in a tricky Q&A. You could even agree to understudy for a colleague who is worried about taking something on in case the dates don’t ultimately work out. Anything, in fact, that makes you as an observer feel slightly on the edge of your seat. Because what our research showed was that if your heart-rate is raised, you’re learning.

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