What Do We Mean By ‘Unlearning’? 

Written by 
Semco Team

A phrase you will commonly hear in the world of progressive work is “we need to unlearn”. But what do we mean by unlearning? And how does it shape our need to adapt to the future of work?

To begin with, we must understand that our workplace is evolving from formal hierarchies to flatter organisations, where fluid networks and self-management is increasing. This approach to how we shape work feels new, and even in some instances radical. But this is how we organised as humans in tribes, long before we adopted strict formal hierarchies.  

The trouble is, most of what we all know and experience in our education system and in our workplaces has been in the form of pyramid hierarchies, where command and control is the default. These environments force us to be compliant, and to take and execute direct orders from the top.  

Most of us will have spent most of our work lives in places that restricted our autonomy and led with authority rule. But what we learned in school and experienced in our careers no longer serves us. The world of work is changing, and we not only have to unlearn but relearn.  

The rise of learning organisations

The world around us is constantly shifting, which means organisations and businesses also have to transform and adapt to keep up. Whether it’s digital transformation, changing customer needs, globalisation, or economic or environmental disruption. At the drop of a hat things change, and therefore a business needs to change.  

Seeing transformation as a constant evolution has been pioneered by organisations who understand that in order to survive and thrive they must become a “learning organisation”.  

Inspired by Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline, “learning organisations” continually transform themselves and enhance their ability to create.  

This vision of a company that can be agile, learn from its members and continuously evolve; is something which businesses strive to become – so why are they not there yet?  

The problem and solution lie within our mental models. The unlearning people and organisations need to embrace to make this vision a reality.  

Shifting our mental models

You may be familiar with the painful phrase, “but this is how it’s always been done!”

This throw-away comment is the perfect example of just how quickly we become conditioned to ways of working. When we’re so used to how something is done, an alternative seems impossible, and even to some irresponsible.

As mentioned before, all our experiences have conditioned us to act and think a certain way. Especially when that way of working is all we’ve ever known. With years upon years of working in a set way, and having beliefs drummed into us from school, work and societal expectations; it’s no wonder that so many of us have been coded to be believe that there is only one way to work. Consider any belief you have about work, and you will find somewhere along the way the evidence of what created this belief for you.  

We can attempt to counteract this hard wiring by learning a new approach. But learning isn’t the problem, it’s unlearning. Even with all the courage in the world to try something new and know an alternative exists, we can fall at the first hurdle because we haven’t yet recognised that it’s our old habits, behaviours and beliefs that still keep bubbling to the surface and shaping our reality.  

To make the shift to a better way of working and being together we must become conscious and aware of the mental model we have to begin with. We have to dig deep and consider all the ways in which we’ve been told how work is, and identify the mindsets and behaviours we’ve picked up along the way.  

This can be an uncomfortable process, because many of these beliefs have got you to where you are today, and perhaps there is a part of you that doesn’t want to give up on these ideas. But while these ways of working may have got you here, they may not take you further and help you adapt to the future of work.

Uncovering your conditioning can also be highly liberating. Ask anyone in the Semco team about their personal unlearning journeys and you will discover stories of real transformation. The same goes for organisations who have pioneered through their own unlearning. When the mental models shifted it released new found innovation and drive in teams.  

To be clear, unlearning is not about forgetting. We can’t simply wipe the slate clean. Unlearning is our ability to choose an alternative. To be aware of our default, and aware of another path, and to make an intentional choice in how we want to approach something.  

When we unlearn, we step out of what we know, and make a conscious choice.  

Knowledge is never wasted

Unlearning comes with a misguided assumption that we must forget everything we knew before. We cannot reiterate enough that this is not the case. Everything you know is still just as valid and valuable, the difference is, we’re now looking at it through a new lens – conscious choice.  

Not all methods and frameworks are obsolete. But rather than being rigidly wed to dogmatic strategies and models, we can now know that one approach is not the full picture, and does not provide a complete answer. Instead, we treat everything as a possibility, an option, rather than a pure truth.  

Besides, whoever truly believed that one thing solves all problems – it's a fallacy that we are sold in an energy-deficient era. The quick fixes are neither very quick, nor do much fixing.  

The beauty of unlearning and relearning is that we add new information to existing information. Suddenly our capacity for choice and ideas expands.  

Where do we begin with unlearning?

To start the journey of unlearning we have to first be aware of our current mental models and the viewpoints we hold. We can’t change or make conscious choices without first being aware of exactly what’s influencing us in the first place.  

Like a spring clean for the mind, we have to step back and take stock of what’s there. Questions to ask might be;  

Are we stuck in certain ways of doing things?  

When was the last time we tried something different?  

What are the beliefs we hold about … (people, processes, systems etc)  

We also call this a journey for a reason, because you will never fully unlearn. Even today, after years of working in more progressive organisations and living the Semco principles, there are still ‘aha’ moments where an old belief or an old habit surfaces that we didn’t expect. And there will be some old habits and behaviours that are just a bit more tough to shift than others. Compassion and humility goes along way, and remember that we’re all just human beings trying our best.

If you’re ready to begin your journey of unlearning, join our next webinar and discover an alternative to the way you work.  

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