Monday, January 11, 2010

One-Trial Learning

THEME: New Year, More Challenges

FOCUS: One-Trial Learning

Monday morning: January 11, 2010

Dear friends,

Life’s difficulties can be a powerful teacher.

Back in the early seventies, I was a young teen-ager at summer camp. Late one afternoon, I put an axe through my right ankle. It was a traumatic accident that required emergency surgery and later reconstructive surgery. Fortunately, with the help of good orthopedic surgeons, I can walk without pain or difficulty. But, never again did I touch an axe without heavy work boots on.

This past August, I picked up an axe to hang it on the wall in the basement of our home when I realized that I was not wearing boots but only sneakers. I believe it was the first time in nearly 36 years that I had changed my behavior. I also realized that a single incident had defined my behavior for quite some time.

Right now, we are experiencing major events that will impact a generation for decades if not life times. Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an international investment banker and corporate strategist wrote a fascinating article called “Personal Lessons From the Financial Crisis” in the September/October 2009 issue of Chief Executive Magazine. When he reflects on all that has happened, he believes the trick is to learn from, but not overreact to this market downturn. He worries about the psychological trauma that could be ossified into “counterproductive behavioral traits.”

As he explains, “In experimental psychology, it’s called “one-trial learning.” For a rat in a maze, make the the electric shock painful enough, say along one route, and the animal, after only one such experience, will be extremely reluctant to go there again. Even if the shock is turned off, the rat will not venture to find out. Even if the route might lead to the largest reward, the rat will not seek to explore it. Whereas in normal learning situations a rat may require multiple trials to remember and work accurately, if there is deep trauma involved, one trial does it. So too, after shocking financial loss, one-trial learning could affect many of us - and this is often not for the good. Because if that happens, if our attitudes solidify and become impervious to change - for example, if we become reluctant to be adventurous - then we will have lost more than mere money. The good news is that human beings are not rats (at least most of the time), and pains of all kinds can be overcome.”

The financial meltdown of 2008 was very difficult. We are still experiencing it’s impact as we enter 2010. For many, it has been a “one-trial learning experience.” And because of the pain and trauma from this meltdown and subsequent recession, we are highly reluctant as leaders to take risks, explore new strategies, and create change. Nevertheless, we need not become victims by all that has happened . We also must not become cavalier and turn a blind eye to what has happened. Instead, we need to learn the appropriate and vital lessons from all that has happened. We need to continue to take risks, create strategy and make organizational change take place.

This week begin a strategic dialogue with your immediate team and then with a greater circle of employees about what are the lessons to be learned form the last two years. We need to learn appropriate lessons but not let them solidify into inappropriate and debilitating behaviors.

Have a great week,


Geery Howe, M.A.
Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in
Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change

Morning Star Associates
319 - 643 - 2257

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