Unlearning: A Tool to Navigate Change

Change is no longer a single, linear event. The complexities of globalization have created multiple layers of disruption and we need to keep up with the pace. Unlearning refers to the intentional disruption of well-established thoughts and behaviors for the purpose of learning something new. It empowers us to adapt to rapid changes in our work environment and to embrace challenges confidently.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

Alvin Toffler

We often consider experience to be an asset. It’s what makes up our resume and what makes one an expert. However, in the face of today’s rapid and disruptive changes, experience and habitual thinking or behaviors can become a liability instead of an asset. Unlearning can be an extremely useful tool to help us navigate through multiple changes, increasing our strategic flexibility.

In one study on global leaders tackling complex changesunlearning is one of the top concepts used to grow their leadership skills through the challenges. I believe it’s not only global leaders who can benefit from unlearning; all of us can use it to be more agile. 

Let’s see how employees can benefit from unlearning. Jean worked for a Chinese manager until she got laid off during the pandemic. After 6 months, she found a new job working for a US manager. Her previous manager made all the important decisions, while the new manager expects Jean to make critical decisions for the project she’s leading. Jean has to unlearn the old scope of authority and relearn how to step up to a new level of autonomy. 

The term VUCA—volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—describes our new reality because navigating multiple layers of disruptive and complex change is no longer an option. Globalization means the pace of the world is much faster, and we need ways to unlearn and relearn because what works in one context might not necessarily work in others.

Rewire your brain to unlearn and relearn

In recent years, neuroscientists have discovered that our brains are risk-averse and gravitate towards certainty. Familiarity gives a sense of security. Because change always brings unfamiliar territory, it presents uncertainty and risks. Most of us resist changes—especially disruptive ones—because our brain naturally resists them.  

Although our brain gravitates towards certainty, it has an amazing ability to rewire itself. Unlearning often couples with relearning—setting up new habits of thoughts and actions. 

Unlearning familiar routines or skills can be very useful. It’s even more effective if we can unlearn beliefs that create our comfort zone. 

ACTION: Identify the changes you are going through and what the pain points are. Identify what you need to unlearn and relearn. Build new patterns of belief and habits.  

Let go of the need to control everything

It’s human nature to crave certainty and control. But what if we re-evaluate our need for control? What if, upon examining, the risk is not as daunting, and we can afford to take calculated risks or even take advantage of the adventure through it? What if training our risk-taking muscles helps us thrive above changes? 

Unlearning the belief that control gives us security will reduce our fear. In fact, control only gives us a sense of security, but not true security. Because in reality, there is not much that is within our control. 

I spent a few years in Southeast Asia, where electric outage was common. But now, I’m living in one of the richest areas in the US—Silicon Valley. Electric outage still happens because of the gusting wind and extremely dry weather. Neither wealth nor power can provide much control over our lives. 

ACTION: Re-evaluate your bottom line for certainty and control—identify the non-negotiables and things you can afford to risk. 

Keep growing to stay agile

The more we crave certainty, the more we stay in the zone of inertia, and changes appear more daunting than they are. The study of global leaders shows that they successfully lead global teams because they constantly tackle change face-to-face, getting energized by challenges. They have a high level of strategic flexibility because they are not afraid to unlearn and relearn continually.

ACTION: Learn to embrace change and grow from it. Be open to challenging ideas. This might go against our brain’s natural craving for clarity, but the more we can embrace new ideas, the higher our ability to handle complexity.

Unlearning and relearning can help us take on multiple layers of change. If you’d like to step towards new ideas, schedule a complimentary session with me to find out how coaching can support you to transition well.

References

1. Janet Ann Nelson, “Here Be Paradox: How Global Business Leaders Navigate Change” In Advances in Global Leadership. Published online: 22 Nov 2018; 3-30. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1535-120320180000011001 

2. Xiangyang Wang, Ying Qi, Yingxin Zhao, (2018) “Individual unlearning, organizational unlearning and strategic flexibility: The down-up change perspective”, Baltic Journal of Management, https:// doi.org/10.1108/BJM-10-2017-0324

Photo credit: Photo by Joshua Welch from Pexels

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