Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From Knowing About to Knowing: An Example of Leadership and the Psychological Contract at Work

Unhappy with definitions of learning and rather traditional, if not ancient, teacher-centric educational practices a colleague, Chris Kenyon, and I have been thinking about an alternate view since around 2000. If you’d like to read more about this please search the word ‘Heutagogy’ and all will be revealed in detail.

However, one of the more challenging ideas we have posited is differentiating between having knowledge about something and actual learning. We find out about something in a training program or at school, and it is stored away in memory: we might even be able to recall it in an examination. In neurological terms the knowledge (or skill) has little impact on other neurons at this time. But later we have an experience that brings that knowledge or skill into play and in this ‘Ah, Ah’ moment lots of neural connections are made that result in us seeing the world in a different way, This may be a slight change in perspective or it might be dramatic: a continuum of impact perhaps. Some of you will no doubt be thinking of brain plasticity and, yes, this idea has been borrowed from neuroscience. I’ll deal with the educational and organisational implications of this idea later, after giving a personal example.

I once wrote a paper on what happens in organisations when psychological contracts are violated. As the name implies, these are unwritten contracts that occur in the minds of people but they are no less important or binding than those signed in blood. When we arrive in a workplace, we observe how people treat each other and how managers treat their staff. Very quickly we develop expectations about how we will be treated and those expectations are usually consistent with our observations. This is a psychological contract. A breach of this contract can be devastating for employees and can cause problems ranging from disengagement to very complex workers’ compensation claims. Sadly, managers and leaders are often unaware of this important aspect of organisational culture. In short, when people perceive they are being treated differently this is quickly translated into a sense of unfairness, resentment, anxiety, and a need for justice.

It is clear from reading my paper that I knew about psychological contracts at that time. I can assume that most people would assume that my knowing about the subject constituted learning. By most current definitions of learning this is probably the right assumption. In fact, I was able to include the concept in my corporate training programs and, as a psychotherapist, treated people who had experienced a violation of their psychological contract.

However, relatively recently I really learned about psychological contracts by being a victim. The result was startling. Clearly the addition of emotion to my understanding was important. This is akin to the different between bacon and eggs: the chicken is involved but the pig is committed. I also instantaneously made vast neuronal connections that completely changed the way I see the idea of psychological contracts. It was really interesting how I was able to relate the concept to other areas of psychology, particularly leadership and management behaviour, in ways that I had not done previously.

For me this was a great example of the difference between knowing about something and real learning. The implications of this idea are wide ranging but I’ll stick to a couple of major points here. We can never be sure when learning occurs in other people: it occurs when the learner is ready not when the teacher expects. It is probable that real learning will occur in a real life situation, not in a training room. Unfortunately, we still tend to think of education and training as an event rather than as context. We also don’t know, unless we check, what impact the educational experience is having on the learner. Thus, the concept of the fixed curricula or the fixed and carefully designed training program becomes inappropriate for the individual, if not the group. The same can be said for the way in which we assess knowledge and skills, and even performance: it needs to be contextual and individualised based on the learner’s (staff member’s) experience not the teacher’s (manager’s) expectations.

If you’d like to know more or discuss these issues further please contact me at

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