Anxiety is a natural part of learning; rather than hiding from it, learn how to work with it

‘There are two kinds of anxiety associated with learning: “learning anxiety” and “survival anxiety.”‘ – MIT organizational scholar Edgar Schein in 2002 HBR interview with Diane L. Coutu

Edgar Schein suggested that acknowledging that anxiety is a natural part of process of growth can help us make sense of all those negative feelings so that they support rather than undermine learning.

Schein held that our willingness to take the risk of trying to learn something new rises and falls as we manage these two forms of anxiety:

“Learning anxiety comes from being afraid to try something new for fear that it will be too difficult, that we will look stupid in the attempt, or that we will have to part from old habits that have worked for us in the past. Learning something new can cast us as the deviant in the groups we belong to. It can threaten our self-esteem and, in extreme cases, even our identity.

You can’t talk people out of their learning anxieties; they’re the basis for resistance to change. And given the intensity of those fears, none of us would ever try something new unless we experienced the second form of anxiety, survival anxiety—the horrible realization that in order to make it, you’re going to have to change.”

Given how challenging it can be to reduce learning anxiety, many organizations fall into the trap of focusing too much on increasing survival anxiety, but this can end up being counter-productive:

“The basic principle is that learning only happens when survival anxiety is greater than learning anxiety. Of course, there are two ways to accomplish that. Either you can increase the survival anxiety by threatening people with loss of jobs or valued rewards, or you can decrease learning anxiety by creating a safer environment for unlearning and new learning. The problem is that the creation of psychological safety is usually very difficult, especially when you’re pushing for greater workforce productivity at the same time. Psychological safety is also dramatically missing when a company is downsizing or undergoing a major structural change, such as reorganizing into flatter networks.

Most companies prefer to increase survival anxiety because that’s the easier way to go. And that, I think, is where organizations have it absolutely wrong. To the extent that our present managerial practices emphasize the stick over the carrot, companies are building in strong resistance to learning….

Employees settle into a wait-and-see attitude. If leaders really want workers to learn new things, they have to educate them about economic realities in a way that makes their messages credible. When management gains that credibility, it can create the kind of anxiety that leads to a safe learning environment.

In this respect, it’s important to distinguish between forcing people to learn something they can see the need to accept—such as new computer skills—and asking them to learn something that seems questionable to them. There will always be learning anxiety, but if the employee accepts the need to learn, then the process can be greatly facilitated by good training, coaching, group support, feedback, positive incentives, and so on.”

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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