The Importance of Unlearning in the Workplace and Why It’s Hard to Apply
Unlearning isn’t about forgetting. Instead, it’s about being open to trying new things – especially in a leadership position.
“Unlearning means stripping away the beliefs and ways to act/behave/live that have been imposed by our upbringing, by our education, by the society we live in,” writes psychologist Mariana Plata. “It means challenging everything we’ve come to know as ‘the way things are supposed to be’ and embracing ‘the way things are.’”
The same scenario is applied in the workplace, mostly due to rapid change and the lack of predictability in today’s business world. It’s probable that what was once the “way of doing things” for many businesses no longer aligns with their current culture and the needs of doing business in today’s world, which means it’s likely all leaders—in one way or another— have some aspect of unlearning to do in order to be successful.
Unlearning ways of doing things doesn’t necessarily mean they were bad to start. Instead, think of it more as rethinking approaches that are outdated or obsolete. For example, we once thought traditional or classroom-based learning was the best possible approach to leadership development. We now know that while this approach works, online, cohort-based learning is also an impactful and practical approach.
But even when faced with the possibility that their approach to leadership is less than optimal, some individuals will remain reluctant or struggle to adopt a new style of learning or leading.
So, before we address how to unlearn, it’s important we discuss why it’s hard to implement. Unlearning something and trying a new approach is difficult because unlearning requires you to simultaneously apply something new while also trying to break a habit.
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Consider a daily habit, such as how you prepare for work each day. It’s a series of tasks you complete automatically, based solely on repetition. This is also the case for managers and how they respond to daily workplace dilemmas. Managers would have to actively unlearn how they respond to turbulent situations and purposely apply a new approach in order to modify their responses.
This makes it a bit easier to understand how unlearning something could prove more difficult for some individuals when a habit is deeply rooted.
How to implement unlearning
Accepting that your method no longer works
First and foremost, recognizing that your way of doing things no longer applies to your current position will help get the ball rolling. Leaders learn on the go, and their experiences help shape how they manage. Letting go of how you “used” to do things may seem difficult, but accepting this with a positive mindset rather than a sense of defeat will be your first step in unlearning.
Find what works for you
You’ve now realized that there is room for improvement in regard to how you manage.
Solutions could include adopting the current management style used by another successful leader within your organization or finding a hybrid model that fits both your personal and organizational values. What’s important at this point is that you’ve recognized problem areas and are working toward finding a solution.
Pro tip: Communication is key. Try being open with your coworkers by asking them what works and what doesn’t in regard to how you manage. Keeping an open-door policy or inclusive leadership approach will allow your teammates to provide honest feedback without fear of repercussion. You can learn more about inclusive leadership here.
Actively immerse yourself in this change
This is the difficult part. As noted, unlearning involves breaking habits (things we do unknowingly). To successfully implement a new approach, you’ll need to keep this change at the forefront of your mind. Just like all things new, you may find yourself using old tactics because it feels comfortable or because you do it without thinking. That’s normal. What will make or break your effort is cultivating an awareness of when you’re falling back into your old habits and making needed corrections at that moment.
Pro tip: It might help to map out what scenarios or situations bring about old habits. Doing so could be a helpful reminder when these scenarios occur.
It gets better – don’t give up
Actively engaging in unlearning will eventually feel less like a chore and more like part of how you operate in the workplace. The important thing is that you realize a change needs to be made and you commit to making that change to be the best version of yourself – and a better leader.
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