The One Thing Killing Your Growth

Everyone wants a learning culture – to stimulate innovation, creativity, and growth.

In 20 years of training and coaching leaders on people strategies that foster performance, buy-in to change, highly engaged team cultures …. I have learned what kills growth (in a person, a team, or an organization) centers around ONE THING.

In 2015, I was privileged to spend time in the GE Crotonville leadership center, auditing a program on personal leadership.  Given GE has pioneered the concept of learning culture, I was very curious to examine how its leadership training supported this essential foundation of their innovation vision.

This  program was aimed at mid-level leaders who were at the point in their GE careers where they would be selected for the executive track, or would potentially stagnate, or leave GE to climb the ladder.

The 4.5 day course was based on a simple premise: Your personal growth has a direct impact on the growth of the company.  Thee training included 3 brief periods  of centering practices as well as provocative tools on mental focus and clarity. Perhaps most importantly, participants were led through a highly personal examination of self-limiting thinking and communication habits. I witnessed (and supported) many participants in deeply uncomfortable places during the class: Confusion. Grief. Anger. Awakening to how meaning and dreams had been lost. Values clashes within their lives.

“A small group of thoughtful people can change the world.   Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”    –Margaret Mead


Why would GE sponsor a course that created such personal discomfort? Only 5% of all leaders at GE are privileged to get a seat in a Crotonville leadership program, through personal nomination.  In this course, students cited powerful leadership transformation, some of which led to innovative risk-taking in the business.

In our culture, we celebrate leaders who can consistently drive results in business. Who can maximize motivation for constant action and up-time. Obviously, that ability is a necessary element of capitalism.

And yet, the quest for consistency in financial performance as the only definition of success, results in strong immunity to the One Thing that leads to success in the first place: The choice to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations. To actively pursue new and unfamiliar patterns of thinking, communicating, and leading.

The Fallacy of the Endless Summer

Change in any physical system is cyclical. There are seasons to growth and decay is part of the process – in nature, and in a team or organization.  The need to Rest, to Remain, to Retract is a powerful enabler of growth. A learning culture fully understands this principle.

However, in an era of rapid rise-and-decline, the 24-hour news cycle, rest and regrouping are often viewed as a luxury that must be pushed through or overcome. And cultivating new, unproven ideas is viewed as a stealth killer to the core of an organization’s health.

Comfort is killing growth when a living entity (individual or system) does not consciously pursue being uncomfortable.

In Transforming Corporate Culture, we described how change occurs most efficiently (and rapidly) in a complex adaptive system (eg, global economy, the stock market). That in extreme conditions, individual elements of the system evolve TOGETHER, in parallel, by acting and reacting to what is happening in the system. Not by relying on past patterns of evolution that favored individual adaptation.

In a complex system, all agents must react and adapt quickly to what is happening NOW. Human beings often favor past thinking and judgment patterns to make split-second decisions about the future. In fact, many leaders believe the past will predict the future, without conscious awareness of the pattern. (How many manage to the P&L?)  They often prefer discussions about “what went wrong” when the plan or numbers don’t meet forecasts. Instead of asking “what’s different now” and “how do we need to adapt, respond.”

The Enemy of Great 

There is another powerful drive in the human mind that limits us from embracing discomfort: The innate desire to latch onto what feels good (a profitable quarter, a successful product, raving customers). To assume that pleasure-state can and should sustain itself.

Comfort-entropy (aka, “good enough”) can be a silent killer of greatness and growth in subtle but powerful ways.

It seduces us into believing that risks are only OK if they don’t result in failure – ensuring risks are not taken. It perpetuates a deep mindset “That will never work here … this is how we do things here.” When a team or organization is pursuing a singular and limited definition of success, it leads to preserving territory over cooperating with neighbors. Prioritizing “what is right for us” (our team or department), blinding us to information outside our belief systems and small world. As a result, rapid adaptations and small changes cannot help the entity learn, and it withers in the effort to hold onto its shrinking place in the system.

The job for leaders in today’s Change Era, is to master the timing and cycles of rapid adaptation. This requires skill in observing the fatigue and energy of the team. In continuously stimulating the right level of discomfort in the team. At the same time, providing stability in its core function.

Leaders may know this intellectually. Yet, the mind is a trickster – it desperately wants familiar, comfortable, and preservation of the system AS IT EXISTS.

The most powerful and effective leaders stimulate discomfort. They embed tactics of questioning and expanding people’s understanding of “what is known” and “what is true.” They teach people that to evolve quicker than the competition, requires risk, failure, and quick cycles of learning. They know the human mind is built for endless curiosity. And that only a thought-provoking, stimulating environment will expand thinking and risk-taking.

To foster a learning culture, asking powerful questions like “What’s different” and “What if?” and “What haven’t we considered?” should be as regular a discipline for a team as financial statements and customer feedback.

To create a learning culture in your team or organization…

Consider building these 7 learning habits into daily life:

  1. Practice mindfulness. Meditation is one of the most uncomfortable exercises you can engage in. Yet, monkey minds are like an untrained dog – lacking the discipline to engage in a variety of social contexts. (and also annoying.)  Teach and create space for people to sit still and quiet for 5 minutes and focus on their breath. Slow down, tune internally.  Not only do you foster health and well-being, and lower stress. You increase your set-point for being uncomfortable and sticking with it.
  2. Create diversity. Diversity is a thought process, first and foremost. Leaders seeking to optimize change and evolution, need to seek points of view on the team that are as far from the mainstream as possible. To consciously cultivate a team environment in which DIVERSITY of thought is practiced, honored, appreciated, and expected. Diversity in the workplace is not a numbers game of hiring more women or minorities (which is a good step) – it’s about mindset that actively seeks exposure to new ways of thinking and viewing a problem. The skills needed to give voice to the patchwork quilt of human experience, will raise the comfort level with being uncomfortable.
  3. Make space. We live in a society of always-on, up-time. To optimize performance, we need to build in daily periods of down-time in which people, the team, can rest. Encourage people to take walk-breaks – preferably outside. If you want to generate consistent energy, while pushing hard on a new product launch or technology integration, you need to allow for the natural cycles of restorative thought.  A good leader will encourage this on a regular basis, to improve the creativity and stamina of the team.
  4. Stimulate minds. Cultivate regular activities that expand and stimulate new thinking. Create puzzle or game centers in the office. Organize a field trip to the Science and Nature Museum. Bring in a customer to talk about their experience.  Have “Innovator Days” in which people can present new ideas for how to serve customers, solve problems, create better work habits.
  5. Shorten planning cycles. Assuming life will go according to plan (and being surprised when it doesn’t) is the hallmark of old-school leadership. (The annual budget cycle included; yes this forecasting is important, but a more modern practice of “what’s changing” and “how will we adapt” will make it more in pace with the realities of business today).  Model the Agile framework – short, goal-directed cycles of activity based on diverse stakeholder expectations and daily communication, to ensure the team is adapting their plan quickly to current realities.
  6. Cultivate the unexpected. As a team leader or executive, how can you interrupt people’s patterns? The more conditioned people become to expect things to be a certain way, they more an organization falls pretty to its comfort zone.  “Do something different every day” in your leadership. Change something in the environment. Change the questions you’re asking. Change the sequence of your meeting format. Change the order of who presents.

Enjoy and share this simple presentation on how to break past your organizational comfort zones, and navigate fear to create a learning culture.


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