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The Importance of Learning to Unlearn

You have probably heard about the importance of skills development and learning in our fluctuating environment one too many times, but how many people have emphasised the importance of unlearning? Not enough. Learning what to unlearn is where transformation starts.

The Process of Unlearning

Adopting an approach of continuous learning amongst your team has likely been enough of a challenge already – wrapping your head around “unlearning” can be daunting. Let us break it down for you so it’s less overwhelming:

What does it mean to “unlearn” something? 

Originally, unlearning was understood to be the process of removing previous knowledge so we can take on optimised information. However, this has proven to be an unrealistic and unhelpful expectation. We cannot eliminate knowledge altogether, but we can become aware of old habits, consciously act against them, and remold the way we think.

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, almost 40 percent of our actions each day are the result of habits, not decisions. His book centres around how habits can’t be forgone without consciously replacing them with new ones. 

Why is unlearning in a work environment important? 

If you are set in your ways and aren’t willing to become teachable, you will undoubtedly miss out on the opportunity to develop and evolve the way you approach things. 

The ability to unlearn helps us to adapt. If we simply look at the way we’ve had to adjust the way we communicate from before the pandemic to now, we’ve had to very quickly unlearn old habits relating to conversing with body language. We now have to rely on as much as the video can reveal, if we are even lucky enough to communicate with the cameras on. Some employees may be thriving off of this new way of engaging, while others have been working hard to adapt to the change. 

Another example is how the marketing sector has greatly challenged brands to stop and think about the way they advertise. Nowadays, people are constantly in defence mode and switch off when they feel that they are being advertised to. Whereas in the past, companies could gather customers by simply flashing their product across the screen with their solution to the problem, brands now need to change their approach completely. You’re challenged to unlearn strategies that might come across as “pushy”, and really think about how you can approach marketing in an authentic way that focuses on the customer well-being rather than the product sales.

How can you create a culture of unlearning?

The first step to unlearning is to recognise where you have systems in place that could be stunting your growth. Is what you’re currently doing the most effective way to reach your full potential? This is a question you should be continuously asking yourself. 

Because habits are automatic and – for the most part – subconscious, you have to be intentional about reflecting on your systems and strategies. Habits are reactions to cues that trigger a chain of responses. You can eliminate an unwanted reaction by consciously replacing it with your optimised one. Employees won’t initiate unlearning on their own. Leaders need to encourage and push for ongoing unlearning and relearning. Inspire your team to embrace creativity and new ideas. If this becomes your culture, employees will start looking for areas of potential growth and change, without your motivation. 

Even employers, managers and supervisors have to challenge themselves to relearn – this is one of the key characteristics of a successful leader in current times. You will have to unlearn formal learning and communication trends so that you can adapt to continuous learning and a collaborative team environment.  

Watch our case study on how we unlearnt standard, old-school skills development methods, to develop an approach that became transformational to the journey of our clients.