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Latent Learning: You Know More Than You Know

| December 13, 2022

by Jim Dezieck

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Dezieck and David Sweetman. They may be reached at [email protected] and [email protected] or via LinkedIn, Jim and David.]
Jackie looked out on the setting campus sun feeling a huge burden had just been lifted, a smile on her face. Weeks of tension had just evaporated in three minutes of honest, heartfelt exchange with Chris. There was no doubt Chris had felt that too. Pitched in battle for months, relief, new-found comradery, and even admiration now exist. Just then they had connected honestly and set the stage for helping Chris to articulate some proposals for navigating some tricky ground ahead.
‘How did that happen?’ Jackie wanted an answer because whatever she might have done to contribute to that breakthrough was something she wanted to remember so she could do it again. She had sat in on a workshop a few months back to help enable such pivotal conversations, but it hadn’t lit a fire. An emotional intelligence workshop too.  Interesting but no great ways to apply back then. But just now she had profoundly applied both of those as she opened the meeting with graceful vulnerability and joined Chris in surfacing some very difficult issues.
How did that happen? Had Edward Tolman been nearby he might have helped Jackie find the basis. Alas Tolman’s latent learning research took place in the 1930’s. Contrary to the predominant behaviorist theories of the day, Tolman showed that even in the absence of incentives – reward or punishment – we are constantly learning. No one, not even ourselves, can see this latent learning happening. Moreover, when the time is right, when some incentive appears, we draw from our subconscious cognitive map of that learning to produce skillful behavior. A simple example: for weeks Jason’s father drives him to school. Then one day dad can’t make it and Jason takes his bike and cycles the way to school flawlessly.
This small example belies the treasure trove of learning within Jackie simply awaiting her call when the fitting situation arose. She may not have been lit up by the workshops when they occurred.  However, at the workshops and in other big and little moments, her subconscious was mapping what she was learning from her world. Then, despite months of battle with Chris, something on that day prompted latent knowledge to manifest as skilled behavior that bore fruit.
“So what” for you personally? Three things:

  1. Know latent learning is present.  Appreciate that latent learning is a current that is ever-flowing in your life, including in your leadership development. You have a treasure chest of knowledge just waiting for an opportunity to serve you.
  1. Be mindful. While compelling goals and consistent practices are powerful means for growth, that which is unmeasured counts too. If you are being mindful, you are growing. Furthermore, when you are mindful of your leadership regularly you are positioning yourself to bring in a steady catch of latent learning. Though you cannot plainly see your leadership cognitive map, you are tapping it when you stop to reflect on a practice, a problem, a relationship.
  1. Take the chance. We only know about latent learning when it shows up in our behavior. Believe you have this capacity and take the chance to expand your comfort zone and confront a challenge you have not previously confronted.  Try leadership behaviors that you’ve learned. List those you’ve learned. Open your eyes to the opportunities to try. And then the same as you might approach the small chill of a fall breeze: simply keep striding into the action. You will surprise yourself.

“So what” for you as a leader? Three things:

  1. Plant the seeds of latent learning.  As recently shared by Brian McDonald, ways to fast forward one’s development include mentorship, coaching, and exposure to higher level meetings. These and other forms of development can all serve to plant seeds of latent learning.  Find ways to expose your staff to knowledge and ways of thinking beyond where they are currently.  This helps plant the seeds of latent learning.
  1. Reap the harvest of latent learning.  Latent learning activates when there is a reason to apply and use it.  Invite and encourage staff to push themselves, to work toward solving difficult challenges, to find novel ways to serve the mission and strategies of the organization. Latent learning is activated through achieving results. Some specific ways to accomplish this include:

    • Provide I-Time for reflection, including time for thoughts to wander and make connections.
    • Visualize desired future state in detail and then back-tracking to what needs doing to fill the gap from current state.
    • Invite people to explore different scenarios drawing on their many experiences.
    • Brainstorm and discuss pressing concerns to activate the latent learning of an entire group, finding the answer is in the room.
  1. Latent learning is a means, not an end.  It could be easy to become enamored with the idea of latent learning.  It is but a means to an end.  It is one way we obtain and apply knowledge.  Other ways, broadly speaking, involve the more direct (non-latent) application of knowledge to achieve a desired outcome.  Understanding that latent learning occurs is an important consideration for leaders and for coaches.  This is in terms of planting seeds of knowledge that can be drawn on in the future, as well as realizing we may be capable of more than we realize through latent knowledge that can be called upon.  Leading and coaching for stretch goals and results helps to activate previous seeds of latent learning.

Back to Jackie and Chris.  They were able to move beyond previous limits they had imposed on their interactions.  The result was game-changing.  Pioneering psychologist William James asserted that we humans live too much within our self-imposed limits. Perhaps he had latent learning in mind, but he just didn’t know it was there?


This Week’s Survey

So what?  What’s your biggest takeaway on latent learning for both you and your team?


From Last Week
Last week we asked how you generally feel about change:

  • 44% said they are excited and welcome change.
  • 31% said they go with whatever.
  • 17% said it makes them uncomfortable.
  • 7% said they only somewhat fear it.
  • 2% said they dread it.

Generally speaking, this group feels positively about change.  Our welcoming excitement and flexibility toward change may often be based on the explicit knowledge of how to successfully navigate change, based on years of experience.  However, there are times where change doesn’t come as easy.  There are discomforts and fears.  There is uncertainty for what the future may mean if a given change is implemented.  Relating to today’s reading, might those times be opportunities for uncovering latent learning?  Or, when you are leading change, perhaps there are opportunities to plant earlier seeds for fruits of latent learning to reduce uncertainties?