To unlearn means to let go and make room for something new.
For most people, unlearning sounds counterintuitive. Especially in work settings. We always highlight the value of continuous learning, discovering new information, and building knowledge. And, after all, why would anyone want to unlearn something if they’ve worked hard to learn it in the first place?
However, through unlearning, people undergo a process of questioning and challenging existing assumptions, biases, habits, or attitudes. This will lead to creating new perspectives and experiences.
People have been unlearning since childhood, even without realizing it. For instance, kids believe that eating spinach (like Popeye) will make them strong, only to realize later in life that this isn’t true. Later on, as professionals, due to the pandemic, many people had to unlearn how to work in the office and, instead, picked up the skill of working from home. Or, people are ditching stereotypes about cultural or other differences and becoming more open to variety, embracing diversity.
Unlearning is not throwing away knowledge that’s been hard-earned for no reason.
It’s a healthy, natural, and necessary step in the learning process. It’s about opening up to other perspectives and updating old beliefs and concepts.
Understanding the need for unlearning
Being able to unlearn is necessary in such a fast-paced world. Unlearning is “the new learning,” and businesses should adopt this approach.
Why employees should practice unlearning for professional development
Employees must unlearn in order to move forward, work more effectively, and support the organization’s mission.
Every business (or even team) has its own processes and ways of doing things. People can’t work the same way in different organizations, even if the role is similar. For example, if a person changes jobs, they need to unlearn the steps and techniques they used to follow in their old position to better fit their new role. If they stick to their old habits, their work will potentially cause turbulence with how the rest of the team and company work.
For employees to be able to learn new skills and adapt to the role’s expectations, unlearning should take place first. Bear this in mind–our brains can only contain this much information. It’s necessary to forget first, free up space, then acquire new knowledge.
Why businesses should foster an unlearning culture
The ultimate fear of organizations is coming to a complete halt. Social, economic, and digital systems are changing faster than ever, as well as the processes that run them. What used to be the perfect recipe is now outdated and replaced with other processes that bring actual progress.
Businesses that want to navigate this changing landscape, must get rid of outdated knowledge. To be able to adapt means fostering an unlearning culture and not being intimidated to change habits.
Also, businesses need a highly-skilled workforce to be able to operate smoothly. 79% of CEOs believe that the lack of essential skills in their workforce is threatening their organization’s future growth. And as mentioned above, for employees to pick up new skills and boost the business, it’s essential that they unlearn first.
Let’s take, for example, companies that managed to bounce back from a failure. They had to unlearn what they were doing (as it most probably led to this failure) and discover other, more effective ways to run their business. Without a culture of unlearning, this wouldn’t have been possible. Or it would take longer for the business to recover.
For instance, IBM managed to bounce back from failure through unlearning and adaptation. During the 1990s, some strategic missteps and competition led to a crisis, leading to the organization performing poorly in the computer market. However, by embracing open standards, shifting focus to services, reorganizing, emphasizing R&D, and forming partnerships, IBM became an innovative and adaptable company. This means that unlearning traditional approaches and following new strategies enabled success. This turnaround during the early 00s affirms the importance of unlearning for thriving in a dynamic landscape.
Learning to unlearn: Best practices and tips
Yet, change doesn’t always happen naturally. It’s essential to try to remove outdated habits and practices actively.
This is why organizations should discover all the best practices to be able to foster an unlearning culture among their teams and reach success.
Identify deeply ingrained habits
Habits are behaviors that have automatically been wired into people’s brains because of repetition. So, if employees have learned to do something a certain way over the years, they’ve picked up the habit of doing so unconsciously.
But for businesses to grow, it’s necessary to break these habits. The first step to do this is to pinpoint these habits and assess their effectiveness based on current and upcoming work conditions.
Identify such habits by:
- Gathering employee feedback on work processes and outcomes
- Reaching out to new hires; they have a fresh perspective and can more easily pinpoint habits
- Conducting focus groups with diverse participants to discuss company practices and how employees behave
- Reviewing and studying older decisions and actions to identify any persistent biases or tendencies that might have influenced outcomes
- Interviewing key stakeholders, like leaders, managers, and long-term employees to understand their perspectives on company practices and norms
- Going over the employee onboarding process and assessing how new employees are integrated into the company culture and whether certain habits are passed down during onboarding
Challenge the status quo
Leaders should avoid the “that’s how we do things” mentality to achieve better results.
This old concept brings zero to little progress to a company.
When people find a recipe for success, they tend to stick to it. But when the circumstances change, maybe that recipe is not successful anymore. That’s when they need to explore new ways of doing things and improve current processes.
Challenging the way things are usually done starts within your own company. Focus on finding what doesn’t work well, suggesting ways for improvement, and listening to what employees currently want.
But to make your processes even better, you should also look externally, too. For instance, get inspired by what other companies do or discover which practices experts and thought-leaders follow in your field.
When businesses are open to new ideas, it becomes easier to challenge old habits and drive change.
Offer a safe environment for development
Change in habits doesn’t come naturally. Especially when these habits have been set in stone for some years.
People change jobs several times in their lifetime. As such, they often have to update their skills and work behaviors. But things become harder when people stay with their habits for longer.
For example, an intern will be more likely to adapt to how an organization works, as there are no solid habits they need to unlearn. On the contrary, a seasoned professional who changed their job after 5 or 10 years will find it difficult to operate in another way.
Supporting employees in their unlearning journey needs to be conducted carefully. A great way to start is by providing a safe environment where they can be heard and supported along the way, while not criticized for doing a task differently. Besides, “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “wrong.”
With a thorough training strategy, employees can process the culture of unlearning and get accustomed to it faster. Provide training modules highlighting the benefits of unlearning and breaking habits, 1:1 group videoconferences, and even coaching sessions through an LMS where experts can inform, guide, and support employees with unlearning.
Encourage knowledge sharing by allowing employees to share their experiences with peers, discover how others managed to unlearn, and then develop, comment on their habits on discussion boards, and amp each other up.
Encourage curiosity and experimentation
Another great way to help your people benefit from the unlearning process is by boosting their feeling of curiosity.
Some people are worried about changing habits as they prefer feeling safe and comfortable instead of trying something new and experiencing the unexpected. To tackle the fear of change, invest in training solutions that boost curiosity and experimentation in a safe environment.
For example, self-paced learning encourages trial and error while in risk-free settings. At the same time, VR and AI-based learning allow learners to discover more, unlearn old habits, and retain new knowledge in a more engaging and fun way.
No one was born knowing everything. Or doing things the right way from the very beginning. Or maybe, one of your employees knows how to do something in a completely different way than the one you anticipate.
Sharing a failure with the rest of the company is not about criticizing an employee or a team for a poor result. Instead, more people can learn from this mistake (and unlearn bad habits.) Plus, being open and transparent about a failure sends the message that mistakes can turn into lessons learned. This way, people will be less afraid to take risks. Unlearning is a bold move after all.
View mistakes as an opportunity to review processes and build a development plan based on the weak spots of an employee. Collect data and feedback from other team members, and plan coaching, mentoring, or job shadowing sessions where learners can work on their mistakes by unlearning what they already know and learning hands-on next to more seasoned coworkers or experts in their field.
Acknowledge efforts and provide constructive feedback
The journey of unlearning and breaking habits can make people question: “Why am I even bothering to do this? I like the way things are.”
Discouragement can occur, but it’s completely normal. Deeply ingrained habits can be difficult to change.
Acknowledging employee efforts can help with the process of unlearning. Offer rewards, support, and positive reinforcement along the way. Also, make sure you emphasize the importance of the unlearning culture to the company and praise the things people do well.
Even to those struggling with this challenge, make sure you provide feedback in a constructive way to help them stay on the right path. For example:
- Schedule meetings to listen to the pain points of employees and discuss how to further assist with unlearning
- Provide additional resources (training material, coaching) if needed
- Share ideas with employees on how they can replace an action based on old habits with a fresher and more impactful one
Unlearning is the new learning
Change doesn’t happen overnight.
It takes time for people to understand and find value in the unlearning culture.
Just as it takes a specific amount of time and repetitiveness to form a habit, it also takes at least the same amount of time to break a habit. Allow time for people to replace the old with the new, and don’t stress in case of slip-ups, quitting, and going back to old habits.
Persist and show understanding of this process. Sooner or later, the unlearning culture will become employees’ favorite learning hack for now and forever.