organizational learning

Organizational Learning: How Conflict Tolerance and Vulnerability Boost Results

When the C-suite talks about organizational learning, what do they really mean? Here I want to be precise, as there are two learning typologies, each with challenges and requirements:

  • Learning as “knowledge about” (cognitive) – grasped via rational arguments, facts and logic
  • Learning as “knowledge of acquaintance” (experiential) – the domain of direct experience, values, and intuition

Examples make this clear. Learning the past tense of the verb “to eat” in French is (likely) easier than learning to be a more approachable supervisor, or re-evaluating your positions after a heated argument. And learning how to solve an algebraic equation doesn’t necessarily force you to rethink your place in the world. While I’ve met a few people whose lives were changed by vibrant math teachers, for most folks, math class didn’t lead to dramatic self-re-evaluation.

Organizational Learning

When most top brass talk about organizational learning, we’re usually in the harder, experiential realm. This kind requires objectivity, dispassion and logic, and also a reflective stance, observation, mindfulness of internal purpose, a well-informed awareness of feelings and assessment of new knowledge that contradicts our current thought process.

Yet while companies consider organizational learning a competitive advantage, and learning capacity a key asset for transformation, they rarely focus on the substantive processes we need to reassess, release, and unlearn already acquired knowledge, ideas or mindsets. The emphasis is always on acquiring the new, and infrequently on how to get rid of the old.

Transformative Learning

Transformative learning in the experiential domain is always rooted in a conflict between old and new. The ability to analyze what we consider “familiar”— our current way of thinking or doing — in order to experience it as “strange” is critical here. The objective is to make the learner critically aware of their own tacit assumptions and expectations (and those of others) and assess their relevance.

Sound fun? It’s probably not. It’s just not comfortable when our old way of thinking is insufficient and the new way feels wrong. Often we’re pulled off-center by new information or an unexpected event. We may fight it; sometimes we escape unharmed, successful in protecting ourselves from the “threat” and safe from the frustration and confusion that new ideas create. We find it much harder and we are in deep conflict with ourselves. But this conflict is crucial.

Transformative learning in the experiential domain is all about the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world. If transformative learning is rooted in a conflict between the old and the new, all learning is in fact re-learning, an attempt to deal successfully and openly with conflicting ideas.

Tolerance for Conflict

What this means concretely is that being conflict-averse might adversely impact our ability to be an effective manager or an employee at the top of our game. Why? Because tolerance for conflict is a key competency for dealing effectively with transformational learning. If we avoid the experience altogether, we sacrifice the depth of our learning. Period.

How, then, do you enhance your tolerance for conflict? When conflicting viewpoints create a disorienting dilemma, try to:

  • Stay with these viewpoints in your mind a minute longer without dismissing them prematurely
  • Listen more before creating a counterargument
  • Assume you’re wrong
  • Decide to notice a conflicting idea when you hear it and then be more compassionate with yourself
  • Let yourself be confused a bit longer without attempting resolution or another course of action
  • Be your own Devil’s Advocate and argue both points in writing in order to fully understand both sides

Many of these suggestions assume a certain vulnerability that naturally comes with conflict. While most of us have a negative reaction to the word “vulnerability,” it is really a stance predicated on the courage to get comfortable with uncertainty for the sake of the learning to come. Embracing vulnerability means becoming students of our own behaviors and taking on the challenge to encounter the powerful experience of ourselves — the most important experience from where all other others come—with an open heart. Vulnerability, the capacity to embrace not knowing, ambiguity and uncertainty, allows the transformational power of learning to work its magic. Without it — or worse, if we actively protect ourselves against it — we renounce learning’s key benefit: change.


Vulnerability is a discipline that can and must be cultivated. Its essence is a sense of unguardedness and willingness to be changed. How do we foster an innocence that allows us to open and see with new eyes rather than protect ourselves and bet on safety? How can we be vulnerable? Try:

  • Detecting and countering your natural, personal and idiosyncratic aversion against the frustration of not knowing
  • Holding your knowledge, identity and ideas lightly — as vulnerability is not about giving up all you know (I promise)
  • Saying “I don’t know” more often to practice humility when presented with conflicting ideas
  • Asking more questions rather than making statements; living with a willingness to embrace the courage of curiosity more often
  • Taking more risks — risks of self-disclosure, risks of change, risks of not knowing, and risks of failing—to deepen your capacity for personal and organizational transformation

Learning is better naked ;) Let’s get to it!

Adriano Pianesi

Adriano Pianesi holds an MBA from the University of Milan. He studied Leadership Development at the Harvard Kennedy School with Prof. Heifetz and is a passionate experiential learner/teacher. He is a faculty member of the Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University where he also teaches for the Office of Executive Education. He is a faculty member of the World Bank "Team Leadership Program" and of the State Department "Experiential Learning Program." He is the author of the e‐book “Teachable Moments of Leadership.”

  • I love this article, Adriano. I never would’ve thought that these traits would reap positive results to sales.. However, how can we not overdo it? How can we not be too tolerant with conflict to the point of being passive? How can we not be too vulnerable to the point that we’d be taken advantage of? Thanks in advance! Looking forward to your insights.

    • Adriano Pianesi

      Hello Brooke, and so sorry for not replying earlier. I think of the process of doing what I described in the article as an iterative process, to build your muscle gradually…In other words; I encourage people to experiment and learn from those experiments…In my classes I ask people for start just to NOTICE what’s so annoying or bothersome and to write it down. Without changing anything. Building awareness is the first critical step…

      Overdoing? I see vulnerability as a way to be more open, not more unguarded. I suggest to continue to hold our truths but to do lightly. And I talk about openness to ideas, and a vigorous spirit of inquiry. I don’t see passivity in there. I believe courage is required …but not everyday! Please say more,I might not understand the “taken advantage ” part of your question…

      Warm regards and thank you for reading my piece

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