Article: Do Smart People Find it Difficult to Learn?

Learning & Development

Do Smart People Find it Difficult to Learn?

The prevailing 'intellectual arrogance' in organizations is what plagues the creation of a learning organization- a basic dilemma that organizations must overcome to succeed in the competitive market
Do Smart People Find it Difficult to Learn?

success in the market place increasingly depends on learning; yet, most people do not know how to learn


Organizations assume that when people have the right attitude & commitment,learning automatically follows.Thus, they focus more on creating motivated employees


The prevailing ‘intellectual arrogance’ in organizations is what plagues the creation of a learning organization - a basic dilemma that organizations must overcome to succeed in the competitive market

I know a very large multinational organization that has some of the finest managers. These managers, bright as they are, often have a smirk on their faces in a training class. The general thought running through their mind is, “I have an impressive academic track record, I work in a challenging environment, I deliver and I am successful – so what is there for me to learn from this?” I also know another corporation, not so large, where taking a training session is a pleasure. The class is like a bunch of school children who are eager to learn from each other and absorb any and all new ideas and concepts. These managers are, by no means, less successful than their counter-parts in the organization that I quoted earlier. The first set of managers suffers from, what I term as ‘intellectual arrogance’. The second set embodies the spirit of a learning organization.

Any organization aspiring to succeed in the competitive market must first resolve a basic dilemma - success in the market place increasingly depends on learning; yet, most people do not know how to learn. What is more perplexing, is that those members that many assume to be best at learning, are in fact, not very good at it. I am referring to the well-educated, high-powered and high-commitment professionals who occupy leadership positions in the management hierarchy. Most organizations not only have difficulty in addressing this dilemma of learning - some are not even aware that it exists in their own organization. The reason, they misunderstand the concept of learning and consequently, these organizations tend to make two mistakes in their effort to become a learning organization.

First, most define learning too narrowly as mere ’problem solving‘ where the focus is on identifying and correcting errors. But if learning is to be institutionalized, then managers need to critically examine their own behavior, identify the way they contribute to the organization’s problems and then change how they act.

I recollect Chris Argyris propounding the theory of ‘single loop‘ and ’double loop‘ learning. He gave an analogy of a thermostat that automatically turned on the heat whenever the temperature in the room dropped below 68 degrees. He described this as an example of single-loop learning. A thermostat that could ask “Why am I set at 68 degrees?” and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room, was an example of double-loop learning.

Highly-skilled professionals are frequently very good at single-loop learning. After all, they have spent much of their lives acquiring academic credentials, mastering intellectual disciplines, and applying those disciplines to solve real life problems. Ironically, this very fact explains why these successful professionals are often so bad at double-loop learning.
The second mistake organizations make about learning is the assumption that getting people to learn is largely a matter of motivation. Organizations assume that when people have the right attitude and commitment, learning automatically follows. Thus, they focus on re-structuring, compensation, performance reviews, etc. that are designed to create motivated employees. Effective double-loop learning is a reflection of how people think rather than how they feel. Taking this cue, organizations can resolve the learning dilemma by encouraging managers to question the reasoning behind their behavior. This can help in breaking down defenses that block learning.

How does one explain this defensiveness? These professionals have a positive attitude about change and continuous improvement. The only disconnect is how they reason about their behavior and that of others. They describe themselves as driven internally by an unrealistically high ideal of performance. They toy with thoughts like ‘pressure on the job is self-imposed‘ and ‘I want not only to succeed but also do so at maximum speed‘. They are thus totally preoccupied with success.

Being successful at what they do, these professionals very seldom experience failure. Therefore, they never get down to learning from failure. Thus, when their single-loop learning strategies do not work, they become defensive and put blame on anyone and everyone but themselves. Consequently, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it the most. They also develop a ‘brittle’ personality as when faced with a situation that they cannot immediately handle, they tend to fall apart. Such brittleness leads to a high sense of despair, and this despondency when combined with defensive reasoning can result in a strong predisposition against learning.

If defensive reasoning is the malaise, then focusing on an individual’s attitude or commitment is never enough to produce real change. Neither is creating new organizational structures or systems. The point is to teach people how to reason in a new way.
How can an organization begin to turn this situation around? The first step is for the top management to critically examine their own behavior, to examine what is their espoused theory and what they really practice. If they become aware of and actually accept their defensive behavior, then only will they contribute to an ambience that leads others in the organization to examine their own behavior. In the absence of this blessing from the top, all change activities are likely to be a mere fad.
Organizations have to promote a climate where open feedback becomes an accepted norm, where questioning someone’s reasoning is not seen as a sign of mistrust but a valuable opportunity to learn, where failures are not viewed as final condemnation but a step towards having learnt something new, and where managers reason productively and not carry on a task based only on skill-sets they have learnt.

The key to any educational experience designed to teach the senior management how to reason productively and non-defensively, is to connect the program to real-business problems. Once the managers realize that this reasoning makes a difference to their own performance, the buy-in would be complete. This will not happen overnight but once they realize the powerful impact of productive reasoning on actual performance, they will start practicing the same, not just in a classroom but also in their real-life work relationship.

The insight that the process will produce will allow these managers to act more effectively in the future. They will develop a far deeper understanding of their role and the role of others. They will move in a direction of continuous improvement that will truly be continuous. They will learn how to learn.

Aquil Busrai has 39 years of experience in HR with Unilever, Motorola, Shell and IBM. Currently, he is the CEO, Aquil Busrai Consulting, offering Executive Coaching and Leadership Development and Training. He is the past National President of NHRD network and can be contacted at

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Topics: Learning & Development, Watercooler

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