After two long years of COVID delays, Ben’s organization announced it would resume its inclusion initiatives. As a mid-level manager at a tech firm, Ben was eager to learn how to be an inclusive leader, having struggled with how to manage his own diverse team since it went hybrid.
As the workshop approached, though, Ben learned he wouldn’t be able to attend in person. With more than 10,000 people at the company, the chief learning officer had opted to include only the 100 most-senior leaders, who would then teach the rest of the employees what they’d learned.
But when Ben’s manager attempted to walk his team through the workshop’s lessons, she couldn’t remember much beyond a few frameworks and acronyms. Her written notes were even more vague — taken in bullet form and difficult to decipher — leaving Ben and his teammates disappointed.
Ben’s experience isn’t uncommon. For years, organizations have addressed behavior change through “top-down learning.” In this model, top executives receive extensive leadership development in the hopes that the positive effects will trickle down, from the C-suite to middle managers and, ultimately, front-line employees.
But what few companies realize is that the top-down model doesn’t work. In addition to being exclusive, since most employees aren’t included, research shows that when only top-level leaders receive training, it benefits them and, at best, only the people one level below them.
An even more fundamental flaw to top-down learning is its failure to account for social norms, or the unwritten rules that govern behavior within groups. We infer norms by interacting with those around us and observing their patterns. Studies show that social norms are among the most powerful forces of behavior change, so if employees look around and see many people around them behaving one way, they follow suit.
But there’s a caveat: Because social norms are based on the assumption that everyone else is doing something, if people aren’t engaging in the new behavior — which is likely in a company of 10,000 people if only 100 of them learned new habits — they’ll continue to engage in old, undesired behaviors since that’s what they see.
A better approach is what we call “everyone-to-everyone learning.”
In this model, the entire organization goes through the same learning experience at the same time. Instead of day-long or multiday, in-person workshops — which can’t be administered to all employees at once without bringing the organization to a standstill — learning consists of memorable, bite-sized sessions delivered virtually.
Simply put, you’re able to shift from a model of teaching a few people a lot slowly to teaching a lot of people a little bit very quickly. And at an organizational level, this ends up being far more effective. Here’s why.
Everyone-to-everyone learning allows employees to learn one habit at a time, over time. Research has shown that learning, when spaced over time, leads to superior consolidation of new information, compared to all-day sessions in which information is often forgotten the moment participants walk out of the room.
Research also shows people learn best in a social context because doing so activates the brain’s social memory networks. Learning in a social context also increases social connections, or what we call relatedness. The fact that everyone participates creates a sense of belonging by bringing employees together for an impactful, shared experience.
When learning isn’t limited to only those who can fit into a single room, it allows the entire organization to reflect and reinforce new learnings together. With everyone learning the same material, a shared language is created. The result is that people can share insights, ask for clarification, compare modes of implementation, and swap examples and applications — all of which help put abstract information to practical use and embed new knowledge into long-term memory.
With the everyone-to-everyone model, we’ve observed participation rates of up to 96% in companies with tens of thousands of employees. Compare these rates to the conventional top-down model, in which an organization is lucky to get 10% to 30% of employees engaged in a learning program, and it’s clear that everyone-to-everyone is scalable.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of everyone-to-everyone learning is its speed. Instead of trying to wrangle top executives into the same room at the same time and then waiting and hoping for the effects to trickle down through the company, everyone-to-everyone learning happens quickly — say, once a week over four weeks – allowing organizations to change in weeks, not years.
A year after Ben’s muffled learning experience, he’s in a position to suggest how to take the next step of his company’s inclusion initiative to the chief learning officer. He presents the everyone-to-everyone approach and within weeks, he and thousands of others are in breakout rooms on a digital platform, learning new habits to create real change.