Cultivating Curiosity — How to shape a learning culture.

May 19, 2021
7 min read
“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether this happens at twenty or eighty.”
— Harvey Ullman

Humans are social.¹

That has many worried about the long-term effect of remote and hybrid work. It’s a whole new world, and we're not quite used to it. Which leads to a bigger question: In a hybrid world, how do we ensure collaboration, innovation, and learning?

The key may be in how we shape the culture around us.

The switch to hybrid work has people concerned.  Michael Fraccaro, Chief People Officer at Mastercard, echoed the concerns of many. “I worry about the impact on culture, learning, and innovation — these need to be factored in.” It’s a theme we heard over and over again as part of a six-month study on remote learning.

Where are we without social interaction?

Acute social isolation can cause physical pain.²

Many have felt the anxiety that shadows social isolation. It’s unhealthy. Fewer social contacts and activities cause a decline in cognitive function.³ For many, offices supplied that social fabric, and it’s the lack of social connection that has Fraccaro worried. It’s why reports of Zoom gloom in the workforce make solving the riddle of hybrid work a tricky one.⁴

Office environments stimulate a biochemical buzz of interaction.

One biochemical, oxytocin, goes by many names. To a scientist, oxytocin is a peptide hormone and neurotransmitter. To the layperson, it’s the “trust hormone,” “cuddle hormone,” or “love hormone.” These monikers come from oxytocin’s role in amplifying social interaction.⁵ Triggered by laughter, physical contact, or social bonding, oxytocin is a natural part of the brain’s reward system.

But we don’t need physical contact to get a hit of oxytocin.

Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation. That hit of oxytocin is partly why Zoom’s market value quadrupled during the stampede to remote work. The need for social connection explains why Facebook is a $900 Billion company.

Learning is social.

Neuroscientist Friederike Fabritius believes that “constantly learning improves our ability to learn.”⁶ Oxytocin — the same neurotransmitter that amplifies social interaction — is part of our brain’s learning process. When we learn, neural connections form and build memory and experience. But before that, we have to unlearn. And, according to Fabritius, oxytocin not only “encourages new learned behavior, [it] aids us in forgetting old learned behavior.”⁷

Culture binds this social behavior, vital to learning, together. Think of culture as a social fabric — a tapestry of norms and behaviors that guide our social interactions.

A simple definition of culture.

We feel a culture around us, but we can’t fully appreciate it.

If you try to describe your culture, a simple definition can guide you. Culture is “how we do things around here.” It’s those unwritten rules and collective habits that silently instruct us how to behave. Every day, at work, we interact with those rules and habits but don’t pay much attention to them — until they make life difficult for us.

Former CEO of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher, has a funnier definition. He said that “culture is what people do when no one is looking.”

Culture is a complex system, constantly evolving and shaped over time. For people leaders, culture isn’t soft; it’s hard. Hard to understand and hard to shape. We know a strong culture attracts talent, supports work, and drives innovation. And leaders now have a choice — to shape the culture around them or be shaped by it.

But, culture is mostly hidden from us, like an iceberg.

How does learning fit into your culture?

If you’re wondering if you need learning in your culture, you might as well ask, “does my business have competitors?”

The answer should be “yes,” to both questions.

Your competition is busy re-tooling product lines, re-imagining work processes, and disrupting how they go to market in a distance economy. Savvy executives know they have to build capabilities and innovate to compete. At the same time, they are wrestling with the new demands of hybrid work — strategies are in motion, ideas explored, and PowerPoints produced.

Among the word-salad of objectives, three words dominate — upskilling, digital, and transformation. And one factor will set apart the winners and losers — an employee’s ability to learn.

Learning to learn is the new foundational skill of the 21st century.

But, with the notable exception of the Agile Software movement, most cultures are not designed around learning. “The culture of most organizations is not designed for practice; it’s designed for performance. Everyone is trying to look good, display expertise, minimize and hide any mistakes or weaknesses, and demonstrate what they already know and can do well.”⁸

The central challenge for chief executives and talent officers — to shift from a culture designed around performance to one designed around performance and learning.

Amplifying a learning culture.

Putting “Learning Culture” at the top of a slide won’t cut it.

Our research suggests strong learning cultures value knowledge, reward performance, and encourage psychological safety. Take the Darwinian world of tech start-ups. They have little budget for training, so there is no training culture.

Start-ups evolve through learning.

Value knowledge.

Across the ecosystem of entrepreneurs that move from venture to venture, there is a strong culture of learning.¹⁰ Start-ups are in a race to acquire knowledge — of their customer or technology. Backers and venture capitalists value teams who show thought leadership and bring expertise.

Reward performance.

To perform, start-ups need to grow. To grow, they need to experiment, fail, and sometimes pivot. The flashing performance sign that rewards growth is obvious in the form of payouts or stock options, upping the benefit and urgency of trying out new ideas.

Encourage psychological safety.

Learning cultures without "a foundation of psychological safety” don't work, according to psychologist Adam Grant. In a learning culture, “I don’t know” is a good answer.¹¹ Curiosity and experimentation thread through a learning culture. Where “let’s find out” is the next step. It’s a hallmark of the tech-start-up, where limited resources mean people wear many hats.

Is your culture a learning culture?

A learning culture is an environment in which teams value expertise and pursue knowledge. Experimentation and practice are recognized and rewarded (along with the failure that accompanies it).

Building a learning culture happens brick by brick at the individual, team, and organizational level. Understanding talent at an individual, team and organizational level is what the talent matching platform, pymetrics, specializes in.

Pymetrics uses gamified exercises derived from the behavioral sciences to measure a series of cognitive, social, and emotional traits. These traits help organizations understand their people’s soft skills and capabilities, measuring attributes such as grit, innovation, and emotional intelligence.  Over 2 million people have now played the pymetrics games, and the platform is currently deployed in over one hundred enterprise clients globally.

To shape a learning culture, leaders can find talent that exhibits learning agility or encourages the collective habits that support it.

Building learning agility.

We can all improve our ability to learn. That ability comes through practice.

Continuous learning comes from learning agility. It’s a set of traits that bloom in a learning culture and wither in an anti-learning environment

Learning agility is an individual’s capacity to learn.

It can be defined as an individual’s ability and willingness to learn from experience and (perhaps more importantly) apply that learning to succeed in new contexts and changing conditions.

People with high learning agility are fast, flexible thinkers who actively engage in feedback-seeking, experimenting, risk-taking, collaborating, information gathering, and reflecting.

From a pymetrics standpoint, the behavioral traits most critical to learning agility center on learning, attention, focus, and risk tolerance. By measuring these traits we can develop a clearer understanding of learning agility in an individual, team, or organization.

Action bias.

The agile learner’s level of attention further supports their ability to learn from mistakes. Unflustered by mistakes, they are quick to react and open to information outside of the immediate task. This also means they are likely to learn and adapt by actively seeking feedback.

Work on your action bias by:

Practicing working at pace — not every task requires deep analysis.

Break large tasks down into smaller steps.

Use productivity tools to free up your time.


A distinctive characteristic of agile learners is their ability to learn quickly from mistakes. They can recognize patterns in the environment and seamlessly apply their newly acquired learnings to challenges and adjust their behavior based on immediate feedback.

Increase your adaptiveness by:

Try out new ways of approaching your day-to-day tasks.

Reflect, and apply what you learn to further enhance and improve.

Seek critical feedback from others to adjust your thinking or approach.


Someone that has learning agility tends to be a quick thinker with a shorter attention span. They handle changes in the tasks or environment smoothly, adapting quickly to the situation.

Work on your flexibility by:

Work towards outcomes, not tasks, to maintain focus on the greater goal.

Scheduling time to accommodate unexpected but urgent requests

Work in “chunks” of time (20-50 minutes) on one task before switching to another. Don’t try to multitask.


This is a measure of risk tolerance. Think of it as an appetite for experimentation. Someone willing to take risks despite potential repercussions. They respond quickly with less concern about negative outcomes.

Ask these questions to increase your adventurousness:

Am I focusing more on what I have to lose or what I have to gain?

How might I cope with potential challenges or failures?

What would my next risky step be?

Are you prepared to learn?

We can now engineer learning into our work.

As businesses transform, upskill, and build capabilities, we can use data to shape a learning culture. For the first time, Chief Learning Officers can go beyond measuring class attendance. CHROs can now understand and shape a hybrid work environment to drive learning. Chief Talent Officers can recruit and promote individuals knowing they have the capacity and appetite to learn.

Click HERE to receive a full copy of REMOTE LEARNING - a how-to guide for business.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Michelle Hancic is the Global Head of Consulting Psychology at pymetrics. She leads a team of psychologists focused on enabling fairer and more predictive people decisions based on behavioral science and ethical AI. This spans talent acquisition, internal mobility, development, and workforce insights.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

¹ Stamps, David. "Communities of Practice. Learning Is Social, Training Is Irrelevant?." Training 34.2 (1997): 34-42.
² LTomova, Livia. “Acute Social Isolation Evokes Midbrain Craving Responses Similar to Hunger.” Nature Neuroscience, 23 Nov. 2020.
³ Banks, J., Batty, GD., Coughlin, K., Dangerfield, P., Marmot, M., Nazroo, J., Oldfield, Z., Steel, N., Steptoe, Wood, M., Zaninotto, P. (2019). English Longitudinal Study of Ageing: Waves 0-9, 1998-2019. [data collection]. 33rd Edition. UK Data Service. SN: 5050, http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-5050-20
⁴ Gillin, Paul. “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Worker.” Computerworld, 7 May 2021.
⁵ “Oxytocin Turns up the Volume of Your Social Environment.” ScienceDaily, 20 Sept. 2017.
⁶ Fabritius, Friederike. The Leading Brain. Penguin, 2017, p. 180.
⁷ Ibid, p. 183.
⁸ Kegan, Robert, and Lisa Laskow Lahey. An Everyone Culture. Harvard Business Review Press, 2016, p. 124.
⁹ 90% of tech start-ups fail. So we’re talking about the learning culture across the ecosystem of start-ups. Chernev, Bobby. “What Percentage of Startups Fail? [2020′s Startup Statistics].” Review42, 18 Nov. 2020.
¹⁰ Lee, Jaemin. “How Collective Learning Improves Innovation.” INSEAD Knowledge, 27 Sept. 2016.
¹¹ Grant, Adam. “Building a Culture of Learning at Work.” Strategy+business, 3 Feb. 2021.

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