As a student of learning agility, I am always attracted to books and articles that may expand my thinking in this area. In our writings on the Burke Learning Agility assessments, Warner Burke and I discuss the meaning of learning agility as finding yourself in an unfamiliar or ambiguous situation and figuring it out. Many times, people have asked me whether someone is born learning agile, or is this something developed over time? Allow me to address the “development” part first.

We do know that context matters. DeRue, in his original work on learning agility, created a model to explain this concept. One aspect of the model emphasizes that context matters. DeRue said that certain environments are more nurturing and supportive, encouraging learning agility. On the other hand, some settings are controlling and harsh, which tend to inhibit learning agility.

Now let’s address whether some people, like babies, are more learning agile at birth. Assuming someone has a normal healthy baby, all babies are curious about themselves and their environment. To the degree that they feel safe and loved, they will continue to explore and experience that environment. That baby will continue to grow and develop, as his or her curiosity for trying new things is encouraged and reinforced. In the best of all worlds, this endures, and this child thrives until they enter formal education. This is not to say that curiosity begins to be stifled at this point, but they now need to learn to exist and thrive in an environment with peers and people in positions of authority, requiring certain responses. Some educational settings are more encouraging of curiosity and initiative than others. I don’t intend this to be an article on child psychology. Still, we need to address this nature versus nurture question as it relates to curiosity and, ultimately, learning agility. To summarize, babies and then children begin their lives as curious beings. Formal institutions like school and work tend to inhibit, if not at times discourage, curiosity and learning agility.

Now let’s fast forward to that once curious child who has grown up and is working for a large company. Those companies provided various environments for employees, from innovative and participative to rigid and controlling. Then in March of 2020, everything changed. Most companies were required to close in-person work temporarily. This forced companies, through their employees (workers and managers), to work virtually and in ways they had never done before. It sounds like a need for learning agility. When the pandemic subsided, some companies told their workers to return to business as usual. People had been forever changed because of the pandemic. Many workers decided that going back to working in an office five days a week was not something they were willing to do, which led to what is being called The Great Resignation. The larger society pressured companies to demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Most leaders don’t inherently have the skills to supervise others when the cries are for more flexibility, a driver of learning agility. This, in turn, led to pressure for more significant investment in leadership development to cultivate these skills. Some of these capabilities are better addressed through selection, but that is a topic for another day.

Krista Skidmore, in her article, “Practicing Leadership: Curiosity as an Accelerant to Empathy” {May 2022), contends that curiosity and empathy go hand in hand. She believes that to create inclusive workplaces where people feel safe being who they are and speaking their truths, there needs to be a strong link between curiosity and empathy. Hoff and Burke would say that curiosity is an expression of learning agility. Skidmore says that curiosity sets the stage. Carol Dweck might call it a mindset. The opposite of being curious is being close-minded. You would hear things like, “We already tried that.” or “That is not how we do things here.” Requiring curiosity assumes certain conditions, in this case, in the workplace. The leader who is demonstrating curiosity is asking questions to understand the issue for clarification, rather than to impose their point of view.

The only place where Skidmore and I diverge is where she implies that curiosity leads to certain conclusions. I would describe curiosity as an approach or precondition that facilitates the nine dimensions found on the Burke Learning Agility Inventory (Flexibility, Speed, Experimenting, Performance Risk-Taking, Interpersonal Risk-Taking, Feedback Seeking, Information Gathering, Collaborating, and Reflecting), leading to greater learning agility. Skidmore says in the article that curiosity and empathy go hand in hand. I agree they are strong collaborators in developing thoughtful, self-confident, unencumbered thinkers who see possibilities rather than barriers. The Interpersonal Risk-Taking dimension found in the Burke Learning Agility Inventory is critical to this idea of empathy. Burke’s Interpersonal Risk-Takers feel comfortable asking for help. They feel comfortable admitting their mistakes. They bring up tough issues with others. In this empathetic milieu, the person raising the matter would be firm on the issue but not personalize the discussion. The other interpersonal risk-taking behavior is that they would challenge others’ ideas even when they are in the minority. This environment would give their point of view a fair hearing and require them to support their position with data. Information Gathering is yet another Burke Learning Agility dimension.

 I concur with Skidmore’s premise that the private sector’s executives face complex challenges in the days, months, and years ahead. Promoting curiosity and empathy are effective means to respond to a workforce demanding change. Burke would describe a paradigm shift of this magnitude as requiring the learning agility dimension of Flexibility. These behaviors are all learnable. They take hard work and a commitment because these capabilities cannot be feigned.

About the Author  

David Hoff is the COO and EVP of Leadership Development for E.A.S.I-Consult®. E.A.S.I-Consult works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. E.A.S.I-Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring advisement. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about E.A.S.I-Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email ContactUs@easiconsult.com or call 800.922.EASI.