In his new book Never Stop Learning, behavioral scientist and operations expert Bradley R. Staats offers a framework for staying relevant in an ever-changing work environment.
Since it's all too so easy to get in our own way of learning, his practical strategies for overcoming inner and outer challenges can help clear the path to a brighter, more curious, compassionate, insightful and productive future.
In leading the Business of Health Care Initiative (BOHC) at University of North Carolina, what have you discovered about continual learning in medical settings?
In our work, we ask questions of failure. Specifically, we've researched cardiac surgeons and their learning from failure. In that context, unfortunately, that means the patient dying. The challenge lies in understanding if the outcome was avoidable. Was it impossible to save someone so sick? Alternatively, did I do something wrong? Often, we don't ask ourselves the second question. We don't challenge ourselves.
—Bradley R. Staats, author, Never Stop Learning
In general, we found that when surgeons experienced failure, their later performance actually got worse. They didn't learn the lessons they should. That's where the power of process comes in, whether that means adhering to a checklist or being willing to ask if you're doing something wrong. In healthcare, the divide between surgeons and scrub techs is significant. Hospitals leading change encourage people to speak up despite that hierarchy. They also take a critical eye toward identifying and measuring steps and behaviors in process improvement, rather than focusing simply on outcomes. They've systemized learning.
In the book, you write that at Harvard Business School, professor Amy Edmondson encouraged you to look at failure "to see if it might be wrong in an interesting way." What allows for that tilt in perspective in a professional setting?
Some industries support it naturally. In journalism, you're taught to question and look for the exception. And when I was doing venture capital, one of the lead partners said over and over: You're trying to figure out what nobody else is seeing here. But for most of us, the unexpected is really hard to navigate.
Edmondson's great work around psychological safety was originally done in the context of health care. In collecting and analyzing data, she found that in nursing—and in so many jobs—there's great value in workers self-reporting mistakes. A nurse might give the wrong medication but run back and grab it before the patient takes it. Or use the wrong size syringe because it's the only one available yet give the right amount of medicine. Mistakes vary in degree, but when leaders are willing to listen and encourage people to speak up, they build an environment of what Amy calls "psychological safety." In health care and in lots of other contexts, that leads to improved outcomes.
You also discuss imposter syndrome as a barrier to authentic learning, leading people to conform. How does the urge to "fake it 'til you make it" backfire?
In this age of fast-moving information, you'll run into some real difficulties by faking it. From A.I. to data analytics, there's so much to learn. If you're willing to ask genuine questions and seek guidance, you can move in a positive direction much more quickly in this learning economy. The learn-it-all, as it's been said, will always do better than the know-it-all.
Traditionally, hospital staff has not spoken up about observing surgeons' mistakes. Now we see hospitals that have completely flipped that on its head. They make sure that if you see something going wrong, you speak up immediately. Even if it turns out you're wrong, there's an opportunity to learn.
Psychological safety is a great concept, but how can it be formalized? How can leaders create a structure for it?
First of all, awareness is key. Many high-powered individuals unfortunately don't realize the dampening effect they have on folks. Successful leaders pose more questions than declarative statements. Several years ago, Google launched Project Aristotle to evaluate team performance. In working toward the goal of making the whole greater than the sum of its parts, they found psychological safety to be key to team performance. Leaders who encourage risk-taking and learning—and who live it by shifting their own behavior—have the most impact.
I love [management professor] Bob Sutton's line about having strong opinions weakly held. Of course, you need to have a point of view, because we need to do things to be successful. You can't be afraid of taking action. But when new information presents itself, we must admit the possibility of being wrong.
How can busy entrepreneurs make time for continual learning?
The frontier for productivity varies widely by person: what we can take, what we can balance. It's a trade-off. We tend to think we can fit in one more thing, but when we do, quieter things can fall to the side. That might be family or relationships within an organization. We get so focused on tasks, we lose relationships, and that eventually decreases performance.
During a 30-minute meeting where I once tried to pack in 90 minutes of material by talking three times as fast, a mentor put his hand on my shoulder. He said, "Brad, don't avoid thinking by being busy." Stepping back and reflecting—whether it's with a journal or just going on a walk to clear your head—is incredibly powerful.
Curiosity is at the root all your work. Is it an inborn trait, or can you teach it?
As an introvert, interacting with people hasn't always been my favorite thing. But when I realized that asking people questions would give me something to say and teach me so much, I was hooked. So absolutely, an old dog can learn new tricks. The human brain has remarkable plasticity, even in older age. We just have to want to change and be willing to do so.