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Daring To Unlearn

We all know what learning is and why it's important. But what about unlearning? Learning and unlearning are like constructing and demolishing a building. Constructing involves acquiring and assembling new materials to build a structure while demolishing involves breaking down and removing the old parts that are no longer suitable to the new structure. A hallmark of having a growth mindset is equal proficiency in learning and unlearning. The latter is what allows us to break out of our existing thought patterns and mental models, think more critically and creatively, and adapt to changing circumstances.

Are the mental states most conducive to learning the same for unlearning?

The mental states most conducive to learning and unlearning are like two sides of the same

coin: they're related yet not necessarily the same.

Learning involves absorbing and understanding new information, something that happens effortlessly in the mental states of curiosity and exploration.

Unlearning on the other hand, involves questioning, challenging, and deleting existing beliefs and assumptions. The mental state most conducive to unlearning is non-attachment—the state where one is not emotionally attached to outcomes and where there is no possessiveness of experiences or ideas.

The importance of psychological safety

The great news is that leaders can help cultivate these intangible attributes through simple practices such as:

  • Practising mindfulness and self-reflection, which helps us become more aware of our thoughts and feelings and recognize when our existing beliefs and assumptions are counter-productive.

  • Challenging assumptions and beliefs with questions like "What if I'm wrong?" or "What if there's another way to look at this?"

  • Creating opportunities for exposure to new perspectives and ideas.

  • Having meetings that are dedicated to giving people empowering feedback.

  • Encouraging risk-taking and trying new things.

It is important to note that the key to all these practices is psychological safety. People tend to avoid feedback and criticism or doing new things if there is a risk of judgment, criticism, or embarrassment. In my experience, people come alive—and ultimately become their best at both learning and unlearning—in the presence of psychological safety.

Ten years ago, I joined a mastermind group that provided its members (leaders of business and community organizations) with a safe and supportive environment to reflect on our successes, obstacles, and challenges. In hindsight, that group and our weekly catchups were as much a vehicle for unlearning as it was for learning. Without it, I would have struggled to:

  1. unlearn the need to be perfect and instead embrace the beauty of being human.

  2. unlearn the need to please everyone and instead focus on being true to my purpose.

  3. unlearn the need to compare myself to others and instead focus on my own growth journey.

  4. unlearn the need to be in control and instead embrace uncertainty as a window to fresh opportunities.

  5. unlearn the need to be right and instead embrace different perspectives.

  6. unlearn the need to be constantly productive and instead embrace moments of rest.

In sum, unlearning can be just as important as learning when it comes to leadership development. Unlearning is how we can create the necessary space for learning new skills and knowledge to help us reach our goals and fulfill our potential.

Dr Shieak Tzeng

Founder, INNER MVP

Question For Leaders:

What steps are you taking to ensure your employees feel secure and comfortable in a psychologically safe workplace?

What are you unlearning today that is going to help you learn faster in the future?

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