Hélène Russell

Consultant, The Knowledge Business

Learning with compassion

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Learning with compassion

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By understanding the ‘idiot brain’ you can build a successful business, says Hélène Russell

Your brain is an idiot. Perhaps it is more compassionately true to say that your brain is quirky, fallible and disorganised; and has developed in a haphazard way in response to a variety of evolutionary pressures.

If you have read The Idiot Brain, by neuroscientist Dean Burnett, you will understand what I mean. If you haven’t yet read it, add it to your reading list.

As someone working in knowledge, learning and innovation, I’ve found it a fascinating read – particularly Burnett’s commentary on the research into memory and ego.

Every lawyer, even if they have no experience of learning and knowledge-sharing theory and practice, will understand the fundamental importance of the lessons they learn during their working day.

As well as updating their technical legal knowledge and learning to avoid the common elephant traps in technical issues, they also learn tactics for less stressful and wasteful project management; strategies for dealing with difficult people; and better awareness of their clients’ concerns and sector challenges.

Through reflective learning programmes designed by experienced knowledge management and learning professionals, firms can disseminate widely the lessons that were learned.

They can also be more efficient and effective, and better able to offer a higher quality service to clients at a more tempting price.

Near misses and failures imprint learning. Our brains accept and act on lessons from failures better than celebrated successes for evolutionary reasons: those ancestors who focused on avoiding danger survived longer and had more offspring.

But anyone who has undertaken reflection on a near miss or failure will also know that, despite appreciating its benefit at an intellectual level, it’s still a difficult thing to do.

We all struggle to some extent with the emotions that accompany admitting and analysing why we have under- performed in our profession. When we’re new to the profession, it’s somewhat easier to talk about such things and ask for help; and when we’re nearing our pension, we have little left to prove to others.

However, large numbers of mid-career professionals have valuable experiences to share, but naturally struggle with reflective learning.

What should a lawyer do? How can they maximise their learning opportunities but remain resilient, professional and happy in their work? How can organisations gain the benefits of shared experiences and lessons learned, without affecting the mental health of their workers?

The Idiot Brain offers help from the field of neuroscience. A large number of biases and flaws in the human brain are egotistical in nature. Ego can distort memories, although rarely so severely that entirely new memories are created.

Interestingly, while people struggle to criticise their recent actions, they are quite willing to criticise their past actions – even when those actions are the same.

The brain adjusts its narrative about the events to explain previous negative experiences in a more palatable way, to emphasise how much the present self has grown and developed.

So how can we use this understanding to improve how we leverage useful experiential knowledge for the benefit of our firms?

Firstly, we must accept that while learning from failure imprints better than learning from success, humans are naturally egocentric and complex. Leaders need to work to create a supportive, open, learning-focused culture, to realise the business benefits of shared lessons.

Secondly, we can support individuals in their reflective learning by this ego bias, treating them compassionately and encouraging them to frame their critiques as valuable learning experiences that provide considerable benefit to their development and to their organisation.

Lastly, we can work with these biases rather than against them, by encouraging people to discuss stories of past near-misses and failures. This is because they will be more open and honest about these in comparison to more recent failures.

While some technical lessons learned may become obsolete over time, many valuable human-centred experiential learnings, such as dealing with difficult people and situations, continue to be useful for many years.

By understanding our ‘idiot brains’, we can learn how to encourage compassionate reflective learning and build successful businesses.

Hélène Russell is an author, trainer and consultant at The Knowledge Business theknowledgebusiness.co.uk