2020-07-14 HR Examiner article Paul Hebert Amnesia May be the Most Important HR Skill in the Future AdobeStock_164603132 544px.jpg

“To really move forward I believe unlearning is our key skill for the future. But that will be problematic for most. We know how to learn. We don’t know how to unlearn. At least not intuitively.” – Paul Hebert

Amnesia May be the Most Important HR Skill in the Future

Count this as the 10,341st post on the future of HR “PC” (Post Coronavirus).  When the market speaks it just makes sense to respond. I’ve already written a couple myself.

I don’t think I need to tell you, dear reader, that The COVID has made HR’s job extremely difficult. And HR will soon be dealing with changes that are springing forth from how the US is finally taking up the work needed for true equality in our country, and workspaces, through the Black Lives Matter lens.

As trite as it sounds, HR is working through, dare I say it, unprecedented times. (I really wished I owned the trademark on that right?)

Even those of us not in HR are affected. As folks are laid off, forced to work from home and juggle things we’ve not had to juggle in the past, we’re all coping as best we can. And as I work through my own demons associated with 2020 (please no murder hornets or meth gators in South Carolina!) I find myself working extremely hard to suspend embedded and ingrained maxims that have ruled my personal and professional life.

In other words, I’m reassessing the foundational elements of my life. Do I really need to go out to dinner? Do I really need more toilet paper? What happened in Tulsa back in 1921? I wasn’t taught any of that growning up.

It’s difficult.

It’s difficult because it isn’t as simple as learning new information. It isn’t simply updating and tweaking processes or techniques to achieve the same goal.

I believe success going forward will require a new skill – one I’ve not used much but it will be the one that will make me (and you) more valuable in the future.

What You Need to Not Know

It was Alvin Toffler said back in 1970:

“The illiterate of the future are not those who can’t read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

On the surface that seems straightforward. Most of us would say we know how to learn. Heck the majority of those reading this post have survived high school, college and possibly a postgraduate degree. We KNOW how to learn and have the paper on the wall to prove it. But how much “unlearning” have you really done in  your life.

We are very good at thinking up and implementing incremental changes based on what is in place. In fact, I’d go as far as to say 98% of change in most companies is of that kind. Even zoom calls are simply a ramp up of an existing technology sold as a cost-reduction play. However, today it is a mission-critical option regardless of cost (almost.)

Paul Hebert, HRExaminer.com 2015

Paul Hebert | Founding Member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Most of the current processes and plans in place today were built on the learnings of the past. Like me, many of my ideas are firmly rooted in ideas with 25, 50 years of “testing” and adoption. The definition of management hasn’t changed much in 25 years. Some of the ways we track and document work have, but the principles are the same. We adopted these principles because they have worked. Why wouldn’t we use them as our starting points going forward?

But now, the ground we built those stones on is completely and probably irretrievable gone.

Think about it.

No amount of knowledge about facilities management applies today when each person needs 6 feet of buffer zone, we have to allow for sanitation stations all over the place and potentially upgraded air conditioning and air filtering equipment.

No employee engagement process expertise is applicable now. How do you engage when the social and emotional rug needed to create connections has been pulled out from under us all.

In fact, when it comes to divining the future when the past is no longer a place to start, experts and consultants are arguably the worst people to lead that charge. They are steeped in the knowledge of the past.

Most if not all the HR certifications available are based on “standards” of HR practice – now replicated by every SHRM-CP, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, etc. on the planet. In other words – everyone is now brainwashed to do the same thing in the same way based on the same history. History that, in my opinion, is no longer connected to our future.

No One Knows the Future

To add insult to injury, when you are invested in history being static, you fight to keep anyone from challenging that point of view. Because the minute you assume history is wrong – all your work that was based on those beliefs is now worthless. Where is your value? Where is your self-esteem?

Every consultant with a pulse and a few where that would be questionable, have posited what they believe the future of HR to be. And most are focusing on the operational stuff… logistics of space… tech support… performance management… recruiting (is local even a requirement?)  That’s normal. As HBR said in 2016, even as the world became many-to-many, we were still operating with a one-to-many mindset. We look at everything as linear and transactional. We move people through a pipeline that goes in one direction even though the employee journey is nonlinear.

And experts have made their living increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of those processes.

Unlearning is anathema to their business model.

Why Unlearn?

To really move forward I believe unlearning is our key skill for the future.

But that will be problematic for most. We know how to learn. We don’t know how to unlearn. At least not intuitively.

Unlearning isn’t fun. Most of us don’t like to find out something we thought we knew was false, or a misleading simplification. It feels bad. And most of us will fight to maintain the status quo. We love certainty. And we are not in a certain world any more.

As an example consider how we view organizational design. Over the past 10 years or so, companies have started to evolve from formal hierarchies to fluid networks. But the solution to this is usually tools that allow communications across silos. The hierarchy is still there. We just modified how it works a bit. We still think in terms of org charts so we didn’t change that. If you really want to be networked you need decision principles that create both alignment and autonomy. But that would require unlearning in the areas of management, leadership, and governance and probably 100 ingrained behaviors. A tall task. It was just easier to modify what we already “know” than unlearn it and start over.

How You Can Start Unlearning

The first challenge of unlearning is that when something contradicts your current understanding, you are likely to dismiss it. I don’t need to provide any examples of this. Simply open your Facebook or twitter feed. We believe almost every piece of information that runs counter to our beliefs to be false or designed for manipulation. We need to counter confirmation bias.

To make unlearning even more difficult humans don’t believe (or not believe) on a continuum of strength. Meaning there is no real gradient in how strong I believe something. Your brain will treat strong and weak beliefs the same. Therefore, we don’t challenge most of the assumptions we use every day. Even weak and strong beliefs are rarely examined or challenged which means we aren’t unlearning (or learning) anything on a regular basis. And because they aren’t examined their full force of influence is in effect.

Below are my thoughts on unlearning, many taken from a great post on Shosin – a zen concept attached to the idea of a beginner’s mind. Which if you think about it, is really what we’re talking about.

  1. Know you are subject to confirmation bias. Every piece of information you get that you agree with – find its opposite somewhere.
  2. Get comfortable with change. Know everything you know is provisional, and that underneath what you know is likely a more complex and stranger picture.
  3. Recognize that the old mental model is no longer relevant or effective. Don’t cling to the past. Don’t use it as your starting point. Create a constraint in your problem statement that MAKES you ignore the past. Something like – “What would HR do if they could never see or talk to an employee ever? What would that job be like?” When we unlearn, we step outside our current mental model in order to choose a different one.
  4. Let go of the need to be the smartest person in the room. We’ve been taught (reinforced?) that being smart and always being the person who adds value in a conversation is how we get ahead. Unfortunately, this behavior just reinforces your internal beliefs, and by not listening, you don’t hear new beliefs.
  5. Let go of the need to win every argument. Unlearning is not a zero-sum game. Resist the urge to correct and use that energy to assess your own beliefs. Others don’t need to lose the argument for you to win.
  6. And my favorite: Assume that you are an idiot. I saw that in the blog post on Shosin. Nassim Taleb said in his book ‘Fooled by Randomness’, “I try to remind my group each week that we are all idiots and know nothing, but we have the good fortune of knowing it.”

I can’t give you a roadmap. And any map I give you today will not reflect the true territory. That’s our problem.

The territory is new and different. It would be similar to using a map designed for the great plains of the United States to help you traverse the Rocky Mountains. No matter what we’ve seen in the past and experienced, it will not reflect the territory we are now entering. Only by forgetting the previous map can you create a new one.

And it will be very scary. But remember, what Russel Ackoff, Professor Emeritus of Management Science at the Wharton School said:

The more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become.

It is much better to do the right thing wronger than the wrong thing righter.

If you do the right thing wrong and correct it, you get better.

Now… forget I ever wrote this.

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