Along the way, we learn a lot of things that are factually false, morally compromising, and true only within particular contexts. Prone to irrelevance, outdating, and obsoletion. Although at times we treat these things as holy grails. By the time we become adults, a lot of the things we have learned either don't apply to our current context, are outdated, are obsolete, false, or virtuously compromising. And at this point, adapting new leadership insights, approaches, and/or practices seem incongruent with self.
At this point in our lives, unlearning becomes the most important form of learning. Unlearning ideas you once embraced because they helped you survive and thrive but are choking your current reality. But the choice to unlearn is easier said than done. Many businesses fail, families break, relationships die, and careers are compromised because we refuse to unlearn.
Futurist and philosopher Alvin Toffler, said, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn." A reluctance to unlearn is the leader's kryptonite.
There is a push for companies and individuals to become learning organisms. The irony of it all is that we are learning creatures. The problem is that we unintentionally learn, instead of learning intentionally. And it is impossible to unlearn unintentionally, unlearning must be intentional.
According to IGI Global, unlearning is a "dynamic process that identifies and removes ineffective and obsolete knowledge and routines."
The world is changing at a pace that is hard to keep up with. In the area of organizational design, we are seeing an evolution from formal hierarchies to fluid networks. The nature of how and where we work has changed dramatically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the near past, the so-called productive narcissistic leaders were in high demand. And now emotionally intelligent leaders are on the rise. "Many of the paradigms we learned in school and built our careers on are either incomplete or ineffective." (Mark Bonchek, 2016). Things are constantly changing, from how we communicate, to how we produce and sell. Standards are shifting, and what is acceptable is being redefined. This list can go on and on.
This consistent change poses an important and urgent challenge for leaders. First, by reminding us of profound wisdom. "What got you here, won't get you there" (Marshall Goldsmith). This reminder comes with a challenge. Your context constantly demands you to unlearn the irrelevant and acquire the relevant. Failure to do so will hurt those you lead and your organization's health and growth. And, it will hurt you.
The Challenge of Unlearning
Unlearning is hard and painful. Mentally, we feel a certain sense of self-betrayal, a letting go of something that was once profound and useful. This pain is a result of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is, "the mental conflict that occurs when a person's behaviors and beliefs do not align." And this conflict leads to feelings of discomfort, tension, and unease within us. We react differently to these feelings. Some reject the new information or behavior to retain their internal congruence. Some persevere through the discomfort, and tension to acquire new beliefs and behaviors.
To develop a healthy relationship with dissonance you need to change your beliefs about your knowledge and habits. Knowledge and habit are to be held as long as they are relevant and useful in producing the desired outcome. And when they no longer lead us to this end, we should not sabotage our growth by holding on to what is familiar.
The Three Questions to Help You Know it is Time to Unlearn
- Does the knowledge and insight I operate on, contribute to my current success both personally and professionally?
- Do I feel completely congruent when I hear and/or act upon newly discovered and proven insights in bettering myself as a leader?
- If you answered no to any of these questions, it might be time to unlearn. And make way for more relevant and productive insights.
The Process of Unlearning
Now that you have established the need to unlearn, here is what the process of unlearning looks like. This process serves as one of many models, and if you have another model, please share it with us:
- First, you have to develop an insight-flexible mindset: A mentality that is grounded in the belief that things are always changing. Just because something worked in one context and time, it doesn't mean it's timeless and going to work in every context.
- Secondly, you need to identify the habits, ideas, philosophies, and approaches, that are not helping you succeed.
- Thirdly, you have to develop a new body of knowledge to replace the failing one. This could mean enrolling in a formal course, attending a conference, or reading books that cover in-depth new insights.
- And lastly, you need to build a support system: Get people around you who can usher you into the new mindset or behavior. Seek expert counsel, coaching, or mentoring.
Remember, Leaders are learners, and to be effective learners, we must first become effective unleaners.