The Four Horsemen of the Work Culture Apocalypse

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We have a common enemy we’re all fighting.

They are the four horsemen of the work culture apocalypse.

The four most destructive team dysfunctions are:

  1. Constant Fire-Fighting
  2. Defensiveness
  3. The Blame Game
  4. Disconnect Between Learning and Working
brown horse neighing with mouth open and eyes closed, off-white background
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image courtesy of Dan Cook on Unsplash

Let’s unpack each of these a little more.

Constant Fire-Fighting

The time available for people to think and reflect is scarce.

Constant fire-fighting undermines continuous learning.

Instead of deliberate practice, people are buried in an avalanche of emails, Slack messages, and the Chinese water torture of urgent, but not important tasks.

The result: no learning, because no time.


Defensiveness is protection against being vulnerable.

With fires all around us, we need to appear in control and infinitely capable of putting them out.

So we pretend we’re something that we’re not.

The result: no learning, because I know it all already.

The Blame Game

Have you ever filled out those employee surveys?

It’s a great opportunity to let management know what you think. I’ve really let it rip in those in the past.

But then I archived the email and moved on.

I never took responsibility for the change I so passionately argue for.

These surveys feed an impulse we all have, to find blame in someone or something else.

The result: no learning, because it’s not my fault.

Disconnect Between Learning and Working

Fire-fighting, defensiveness, and the blame game all come to a head in seeing learning and working as two separate things.

Without time to think and reflect, without a lifelong approach to learning, and without responsibility, leadership is investing shockingly few resources in studying what has succeeded and failed in the past.

Instead, they more or less make it up as they go along.

The result: no learning, ever.

But Have You Heard the Good News?

The good news is this:

  • we each have a superpower that can help overcome this
  • we know the common enemy
  • we’re in this together

To combat our common enemy, we need a system for cultivating a learning culture.

But before we can lay the foundation for this system, we need to define it.

Let’s Start with Culture

My good friend Paul Millerd wrote an excellent article on general workplace culture, which gives us a good starting point.

“Culture is a messy term.” – Paul Millerd

Paul parses through a review of 134 different definitions of the word “culture” to pinpoint a useful definition:

“that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired as a member of society” – Sir Edward Tyler in Primitive Culture.

Three key concepts we need to hone in on here to define learning culture:

  1. Complex whole – culture is a complicated collection of many things.
  2. Capabilities and habits – the “things” in this case are capabilities and habits.
  3. Member of society – we form them by being part of communities.

With this lens, we can now turn our attention to learning culture specifically.

Learning Culture: A Complex Whole

Recognizing that culture is a complicated collection of many things should remind us to resist being too prescriptive in naming it.

That’s not going to please the marketers who crave pithy, attention-grabbing headlines to describe ideas.

But to get to the essence of learning culture, we must recognize it as a mindset, a feeling, an internal drive within individuals, but shared by many.

I liken this to diversity and inclusion initiatives. One approach to cultivating a spirit of diversity and inclusion is to try to name all the things that make up diversity and inclusion and tell people about them.

That’s how you end up with a text-and-next slide show on unconscious bias.

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Another approach is to bring people together who actually have diverse backgrounds and opinions and create a safe and intentional space for them to engage in dialogue.

What you get is exposure to diverse opinions (surprise!). A natural desire to include others develops, as people realize they’re not so different. And a spirit of togetherness forms.

By showing people what diversity and inclusion mean, you change hearts and minds.

So let’s not try to be too prescriptive. But just as a room full of diverse people and lively conversation paints a picture of diversity and inclusion we can paint a picture of what a learning culture looks like.

Learning Culture: Capabilities and Habits

What are the specific capabilities and habits that make up a learning culture?

I’ve spent 5 years talking to and learning from clients at Curious Lion, I’ve spent many more on my own personal reflection, and I’ve interviewed dozens of learning leaders on The Learning Culture Podcast.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the capabilities and habits of people who exhibit a culture of learning:

  • Growth mindset – they never see themselves as the finished product; they’re always learning.
  • Curiosity – they have a passion for learning and personal development, and they adopt a beginner’s mindset.
  • Abundance mindset – they see learning opportunities everywhere, even in failure.
  • Fearlessness – they aren’t scared of struggling with new ideas or being wrong.
  • Generosity – they are compelled to share their learning with others.
  • Openness – they build mutual trust and respect people with diverse opinions, helping them learn from others.

People who exhibit these capabilities and habits are lifelong learners.

To bring this fully into the context of organizational learning, I’ll add one more.

Lifelong learners in organizations have the ability to recognize and apply learning to a shared vision.

The sum of the capabilities and habits needed for a learning culture ends up looking like this:

Pyramid image depicting the six qualities mentioned in the previous section
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This is where community comes in, and where learning culture truly takes shape.

Learning Culture: Formed by Community

Coming at it from the perspective of the individual, James Clear writes in Atomic Habits:

“One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behavior is the normal behavior.”

Coming at it from the perspective of the company, Peter Senge writes in The Fifth Discipline:

“The fundamental learning units in an organization are working teams. Whether they are management teams or product development teams or cross-functional teams, people who need one another to act, in the words of Arie de Geus, are becoming the key learning unit in organizations. This is so because almost all important decisions are now made in teams, either directly or through the need for teams to translate individual decisions into action.”

Add these two ideas together and you begin to realize the incredible self-reinforcing power of a team of individual lifelong learners building capabilities toward a shared vision.

A company like this is truly a learning organization, with category-defining potential.

From what I’ve seen, there are 3 features all learning organizations have in common:

  1. Build teams, not stars  everyone’s strengths are different, and people learn more when they are supported by others. In most cases, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  2. Keep learning teams small – Amazon has “Two Pizza Teams” and Stripe intentionally keeps teams small, to promote collaboration, communication, and shared responsibility.
  3. Focus on how we learn and how we do – leaders set the tone by articulating “this is how we learn”; managers evaluate how work was done, not just what was accomplished; learning is rewarded.

I’ll give you an example from my own company.

We are small by definition, so our learning team is the majority of the company for now. Every week we have open office hours that anyone can join. Some weeks we discuss how we do what we do, often in the context of one team member’s current project. Other weeks we discuss a topic of interest like writing creative hooks to capture attention. Once a month someone on the team presents a topic they’ve researched, like emotional education.

This is by far the highest leverage hour of our week. Without fail, we leave with ideas for immediate implementation. We also record, edit, categorize and store clips from these meetings for future reference and new hires.

We think very deeply about building our own learning culture.

This leads me to my contribution to defining it.

For me, a learning culture for a company is:

the self-reinforcing flywheel of curiosity, fearlessness in failing, open-mindedness, and continuous learning present in small groups of people, applied collectively towards a shared vision.

The only hope of cultivating this kind of culture lies in understanding the individuals, their capabilities and habits, and the context in which they operate.

That’s where our journey will pick up next.


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