Worried About the Next Pandemic? Future-proof Your Talent by Unlearning

05/27/2020 7 min read
Keith Keating
Keith Keating With a career spanning over 20 years in L&D, Keith Keating is a workforce futurist, design thinking practitioner, and learning and development thought leader. Keith is currently pursuing his doctorate in the Chief Learning Officer program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Worried About the Next Pandemic? Future-proof Your Talent by Unlearning

Change is happening at an exponential rate. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity, VUCA—a term introduced by the military in 1987—has become our status quo. A shift in demographics within the labor market, rapid urbanization in developing countries, economic power shifts, technological evolution, the push for globalization, and now COVID-19 are changing the fundamental nature of the way humans work.

Barry O’Reilly introduces the concept of leadership conditioning in his book, Unlearn. We are products of our parents, first jobs, and first work environments. We have been conditioned with a way of thinking, an understanding of what is right. Unlearning gives us the skills necessary to continuously adapt to changing circumstances and future-proof, whether it be responding to uncertainty, to opportunity, or to unplanned situations. Being able to adapt during COVID-19 will create a divergence between leaders into two distinct categories: those who will thrive and those who will fail. For HR and procurement leaders, now is the time to adapt your talent management strategy (on-demand and freelance) and ways of working (remote) to meet needs and thrive. HR and procurement leaders will need to be able to loosen and rework their previous paradigms, now more than ever.

Life as we knew it shifted overnight. From work, school, socialization, or shopping—our in-person reality changed to a virtual reality. Our economy has shifted, and business models have pivoted to survival mode. Amid the confusion, chaos, and to adapt to the change, we are having to quickly relearn much of what is common and familiar to us both personally and professionally. We are experiencing agility and adaptability in its truest and most beautiful form, much of which can be attributed to our ability to learn and relearn. Yet in order to successfully relearn, we must be willing to unlearn what is no longer relevant or existent. So, what is unlearning and how does it happen?

What Is Unlearning?

The simplest definition of unlearning is to overwrite or discard something from our mind. Unlearning involves the giving up or abandonment of knowledge, actions, or behaviors. Unlearning is not about forgetting, it is about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. As HR professionals, this is an important mindset for us to embrace and embody not only for ourselves but also for our talent.

When any real progress is made, we unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before.
– Henry David Thoreau

When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. Most likely you have experienced unlearning without realizing it. Each time you start a new job, you will need to unlearn the dynamics and environment of your former job and relearn them in the context of your new organization. When you travel to a foreign country, you are quickly unlearning and relearning local customs or laws. Luckily, countries like the UK recognize this can be a challenge for some and are gracious enough to remind us at every corner to look right before we cross the street. Or think about every time you get a new mobile device or smartphone—there is always an unlearning curve and relearning curve as you navigate the new device, upgrade, or enhancement replacing an existing function or feature. You adapt to the situation and establish a new mental model in accordance with the need.

Unlearning isn’t just for us. Organizations go through the process of unlearning as business models shift—much like we are seeing right now with auto manufacturers producing ventilators and safety gear, fast food franchises leveraging their supply chain to deliver school lunches, and beer manufacturers producing hand sanitizer.

Unlearning Is the Foundation of Lifelong Learning

Harnessing the ability to unlearn is the foundation of lifelong learning. According to Ernst & Young, around 40% of existing degrees will soon be obsolete. Change in the business environment is continuous, and the ability of people to be agile and respond accordingly is the optimum solution. Encouraging our talent to be lifelong learners will set them up for success to navigate change.

Modern careers are like treadmills—you need to keep moving and learning no matter what the stage of your career. Being content is a mindset that puts us and our talent at risk. Considering how quickly industry, business, and technology evolve—this is how our employees get left behind and our organizations stall. Instilling the concepts of lifelong learning ensures our talent remains agile, adaptable, and ready to fill the next organizational gap.

Too often, education isn’t much considered beyond university education. You graduate high school, get a university degree, and consider yourself done with education. In the past, this may have been sufficient to land and keep a great job until you retire. The concept of being a learner has shifted. The concept of learn, do, retire ceased to exist years ago. To be agile and adaptable, you need to learn, unlearn, and relearn. This is the cycle of a lifelong learner.

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In our current situation, unlearning paves the way for current and future success.

The Three Steps of Unlearning

The process of unlearning has three steps:

  • Acknowledge irrelevant or outdated mental models
  • Identify a plan of action for unlearning old models
  • Ingrain the new habit(s)

1. Acknowledge Irrelevant or Outdated Mental Models

First, you need to acknowledge that the old mental model has become obsolete or no longer relevant. This step is the most difficult of all, especially in our current environment. The acknowledgment of change can trigger grief for what is no longer—and for us, much of what we knew will require unlearning, from travel to socialization to the way we work. Businesses are also recognizing their operating models are no longer relevant and need to pivot.

As we establish habits and behaviors, we start acting involuntarily and it makes us unconscious of our mental models. Moreover, people tend to ignore the fact that their habit, skill, or knowledge has become irrelevant. Acknowledging lapses in mental models can even trigger fear of losing jobs, reputation, and career. To overcome this fear, stay open to new ideas and have a growth-oriented mindset.

Our mindset is a set of assumptions and it varies from person to person. There are two distinct types of mindsets: growth mindset and fixed mindset (as established by American psychologist Carol Dweck). People with fixed mindsets believe that their aptitude, character, and creativity are static fundamentals that they cannot change in any meaningful way. They consider success as an assessment of how those inherent attributes measure up against a standard, and they focus on avoiding failure at all costs because failure deprives them of the sense of being smart or skilled.

People with growth mindsets, on the other hand, tend to thrive on challenges. They see failure not as an indicator of unintelligence but as an impetus for growth and opportunity to learn new abilities. If you have a fixed mindset, you would not be able to even identify the areas where you are lacking. As we look for high-potential candidates to hire, identifying talent with growth mindsets is advantageous to our organizations. Having a growth-oriented mindset is necessary for unlearning, relearning, and learning.

2. Identify a Plan of Action for Unlearning Old Models

Second, identify or create a new model or plan of action that helps you achieve the unlearning goal. For example, think of a software engineer who has mastered one coding language—soon, he will find that the market has evolved, there is a new language trending. If he ignores the trend and keeps his focus on that one language, his knowledge becomes obsolete. The engineer will need to develop a plan of action to unlearn, or evolve, his current skill set to include a new programming language.

Remember that this process of unlearning and then identifying an alternative will lead you to self-actualization. People undergoing this process usually end up realizing their true potential. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, self-actualization is the highest level of psychological development and it occurs when you maximize your potential. Realization of one’s true self helps people embrace the unknown and find motivation in their growth. Helping our talent find motivation in growth should, after all, be an inherent underpinning for HR and L&D professionals.

3. Ingrain the New Habit(s)

Once you’ve identified the “problem” and the “solution,” focus on the last and most important step: ingraining the new habits. You might find it easier to fall back to your old habits, but if you focus on creating milestones and have S.M.A.R.T.—specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-based—goals, you will see your habits changing. Focusing on the new model and flooding your routine with newly designed actions, the process of learning something new overwrites the old actions you wanted to unlearn. Practicing unlearning will make it easier for you to be adaptable, and your brain will become tuned to adjust with the changes. The ability of the brain to change continuously throughout our life is referred to as neuroplasticity by doctors and psychologists. As we learn how to unlearn, our brain becomes elastic. It develops new neurotic connections, recognizes new stimuli, and starts acting accordingly.

We often use the phrase “it’s like riding a bike” when describing something that is ingrained in our memories and becomes instinctual, but what happens when you try to unlearn something as common as riding a bike? How does your brain react and just how difficult is it to unlearn and relearn how to ride a bike? Engineer Destin Sandlin sets out to explore these questions by changing one feature of how the bike operates to test how his brain reacts (or doesn’t react). Check out his TED-Ed video to see unlearning and relearning in action.

Unlearning Is the Future

As we are seeing today with the global response to COVID-19, our ability to adapt to change is imperative for survival. The most successful companies and employees will be the ones who learn, unlearn, and relearn. Computers, AI systems, robotics, and other machines are easily programmed to unlearn and relearn through coding—our HR and procurement leaders and the talent they are responsible for need to do the same to future-proof and stay relevant.

Keith Keating
Keith Keating With a career spanning over 20 years in L&D, Keith Keating is a workforce futurist, design thinking practitioner, and learning and development thought leader. Keith is currently pursuing his doctorate in the Chief Learning Officer program at the University of Pennsylvania.