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Learning Styles in the Workplace

Why learning styles are as important in the workplace as in the classroom

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Thanks to Ron Gross for sharing this piece from his book, Peak Learning: How to Create Your Own Lifelong Education Program for Personal Enlightenment and Professional Success by Ron Gross, a favorite About Continuing Education contributor.

In the world of work, there is widening recognition of the need to capitalize on different learning styles within organizations. According to Dudley Lynch, in Your High Performance Business Brain, "we can use this powerful new way of understanding people to design better organizations, ... do a more effective and productive job of hiring and placing people, and to frame our management messages so that they can penetrate the natural filters of the mind."

That means you should be able to measure how well your learning style fits the tasks that compose your present job. You should also be able to recognize the styles of others, which will make for better communications.

In my workshop we illustrate this by forming a hemispheric circle. All the participants seat themselves in a semicircle so that each person's position reflects his or her degree of preference for either the stringer or the grouper style of learning. (Are You a Stringer or a Grouper?) Those on the left side of the semicircle prefer to learn in a step-by-step, analytical, systematic way. Those on the right prefer a holistic, top-down, big-picture approach. Then, we talk about how these two kinds of people can best explain things to each other or convey new information.

"Hold on, now," one of the left-side folks will say. "I'd really prefer it if you could start out by giving me some basic examples of what you're talking about. You seem to be all over the map instead of starting with first things first."

But the next minute someone from the right side will complain, "Hey, I can't see the forest for all those trees you're throwing at me. Could we wrench ourselves up out of the details and get an overview of the subject? What's the point? Where are we headed?"

Often partnerships are profitably forged out of two individuals who complement each other's styles. In my workshops, we often see two people who work closely together take seats on opposite ends of the hemispheric circle. In one case, a couple in the fashion business found themselves in those places. It turned out that one of them was the idea person and the other, the financial wizard. Together they made a dynamic duo indeed.

Creating teams to work together or to solve problems is an important area in which an awareness of styles can assure greater success. Some highly technical problems calls for team members who all share the same way of processing information, seeking new facts, interpreting evidence, and coming to conclusions. A narrow fact-finding or problem-solving assignment, such as determining how to expedite the passage of orders through the billing department, might be such a situation.

In other situations, however, your success may depend on having the right mix of styles. You may need one or two people who take the top-down, broad view together with others who like to work systematically and logically. Creating a plan for the next year's activities would be a task that could benefit from this mix of approaches.

Another area in which styles of learning and thinking can crucially affect the success of individuals or organizations is boss-employee relations. This typical situation occurs every day in business and industry: a supervisor will complain that a new worker can't seem to learn a routine task. When the suggestion is made that the newcomer might learn it if shown it move by move, the supervisor — clearly a grouper rather than a stringer — expresses dismay, exclaiming, "I never give instructions that way. It would be insulting and patronizing — anyone can pick it up if they really want to."

Such conflict based on differences in style can extend right up to the executive suite. In their book, Type Talk, management consultants Otto Kroeger and Janet Thuesen tell how they helped straighten out troubled organizations by analyzing the disparities among the styles of the managers and executives involved. They even suggest developing a version of the organization chart in which each of the key individuals is identified not by his or her title, but by his or her learning style!

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