The learning cycle at work

I had a few clients who were expressing sentiments such as: “I’m not feeling like myself,” or, “I’m just not how I used to be on the job,” or, “I’m not really feeling it anymore, and I don’t know why.” They attribute these feelings to no longer being challenged at work, or having no growth opportunities. Maybe… but after exploring their histories a bit, another possibility seemed more likely: they were entering in new phase of the learning cycle, and they didn’t realize it.

The figure below shows Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle.

learning cycle

In our typical school lives, we cycled in and out of new content every year or quarter or semester – you experienced a new topic through listening or reading, you watched it being reflected in classes or labs, you evaluated the information you’ve observed/experienced, then you tried it yourself. This is how you achieved mastery. Logical, right? Except that rarely happens continually on the job the way it happened continually in school.

Many jobs do not allow for the full learning cycle to occur.

Most jobs are about moving UP. There are few companies that have the foresight to run rotations for their employees, or to manage employee satisfaction from a start-up phase where people are constantly cycling in repeated discovery, to the growth phase where people need to just do the same good work, but more and more of it, in order to scale.

In most roles, you probably operate at the DO phase of the learning cycle, but sometimes you even get to THINK and DO. When you only cycle through thinking and doing, you are missing key elements in the learning cycle. Suddenly, professional growth and new opportunities aren’t so interesting if it’s just more thinking and doing. And the tough part is that we condition ourselves to believe that this is all we should need to have job satisfaction.

The reality is that job satisfaction typically comes from experiencing the “flow” channel – the perfect mash-up of challenge and skill.

Once we achieve mastery, we need something else to challenge us in order to achieve flow again. More thinking and doing alone does not help you fully embrace challenge, gain new skills, and achieve flow. This can only come from starting at the bottom rung of the ladder and beginning a new learning cycle. And round and round it goes!

Moving UP at work should not be linear, or even a scraggly line. It’s not a line at all. Professional development from growth and learning is a series of circles, an upward-moving coil or cirlicue. For many of my clients, they found themselves chasing active phase after active phase, when they should have been embracing the observational phase.

As a result of this insight, some of my clients have decided to revisit their professional growth (in a great way), and put themselves in the path of the full learning cycle. The good news is that you can do this at any time, once you recognize you’re in this particular “rut.” You don’t actually have to wait for your company or organization to do anything for you.

Here is how I’ve helped others full realize this natural learning cycle in their jobs.

Some clients decide to take a step back from constantly thinking and doing (mostly doing) and move back toward the experience and observation phases of the learning cycle to re-engage them in their jobs in these ways:

  • Neo-networking. Contact someone either out of your line of work or “work-adjacent” and ask them for an informational interview. Bring a deep intellectual curiosity to asking about their journey, what they’ve observed, what they have learned, questions that they are still trying to figure out and haven’t cracked yet, trends they are excited about vs. worried about. Just get some exposure to someone’s completely different experience. Ask for case studies, examples, good stories. Then think about whether you can apply it to your journey.
  • Reading. Yeah, read a book. It should be a book you can learn something from. Reading puts you into the feeling/experience phase of the learning cycle. It gets you primed for that in other areas of your life.
  • Going back to “school.” This may take many forms, from informal courses, to pursuing an advanced degree, to simply auditing a class. One client of mine took this suggestion and turned it upside down. She went and taught a course of content she already had mastery of, in order to get back into other phases of the learning cycle by experiencing and observing her students. (A+ for her!)

It turns out it’s not rocket science: talk to people, read, and take advantage of coursework. We did all of this in school when we were constantly going around and around in learning cycles! Now let’s apply it to the workplace to optimize our growth and professional development.

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