Most people will either choose or be required to change careers at least once in their lives. And even should a person avoid a career pivot, the necessity to acquire new skills is inevitable.

As the contemporary workplace undergoes transformational change, so does the workforce. The information age, with its rapid disruption and exponentially accelerating pace of change, has made knowledge, creativity and adaptability — the ability to learn — more than “nice to haves” for both individuals and organizations.

Transformational learning can take the challenge posed by external change and turn it into the opportunity for internal improvement, and that requires a whole system change. Such deep learning can lead to nimbleness in the workforce — as well as enhanced quality of life.

A Systemic Perspective of Self

Eastern philosophies have long recognized the intimate connections among cognitive structures, emotional reactions, physical health and spiritual development. Fundamental improvement requires holistic attention on four interconnected aspects of the self: body, mind, heart and soul. Long-term attention to these components can bring long-term and overall improvement, and engaging in learning activities can facilitate such transformation, even in relatively short periods of time. The experiences that address all four aspects are more likely to improve overall well-being — rather like integrative cross-training.

  • Body: Western medicine typically defines health in physical terms; are the parts of the body doing what they’re supposed to? But mental, emotional and spiritual issues can also manifest themselves in the body, in which case, solely treating the physical system is tantamount to addressing the symptom rather than the actual problem.
  • Mind: Both Eastern and Western philosophies have long held that consciousness consists of many different levels — the subconscious, conscious and supraconscious mind, for example. Human thought, feeling and action are produced by the interactions of these levels.
  • Heart: Research shows that emotional intelligence, the ability to manage one’s own and others’ emotions effectively, is an important determinant of success. Emotions exert considerable influence on the nature of interpersonal interactions and so play an important role in healthy, meaningful relationships.
  • Soul: Accessing and paying attention to the higher self, the part of us that knows the difference between good and bad, enables us to make decisions that benefit ourselves and others. It’s from this part of being that humans develop a sense of purpose, and identifying this reason can significantly impact one’s life.

Approaches to Learning

Learning typically follows one of the four following modalities. While some traditionally and obviously align, each method of learning can lead to improvement in each aspect of being, and each aspect influences the others.

Lecture/Discussion: Perhaps most associated with traditional education, this analytical approach is easily aligned with the mind. But it also may introduce leading-edge information about the body, explore emotionally charged issues or lead to deep discussions to surface tacit assumptions and deep-seated issues that influence life choices.

Physical/Recreational: Games and physical challenges may have an overt/obvious connection to the body, but they can also provide a compelling setting in which to encourage teamwork, and the visceral learning that comes from activity can be powerful. Meanwhile, games that provide mental stimulus or emotional reaction connect to the other parts of being, and activities like walking meditation or yoga are physical activities that integrate the active participation of the mind, heart and soul.

Experiential/Relational: In this approach, interacting with others serves as the main source of learning. It leads to not only insights into relating with others, but also to understanding the individual’s own patterns of behavior and motivations behind choices. Experiential learning may mean participants provide feedback to each other about impressions based on physical mannerisms, surfacing what is otherwise one’s “blind self.” Or groups may use concrete means to articulate deep concepts and perspectives: art to describe where they find meaning, blocks representing an organization as a living system or skits about worst-ever team experiences. 

Reflective/Meditative: While the other three can result in reflection, the direct goal of this approach is to use introspection to improve self-awareness. Participants may use journals to express desired states of being in order to see what changes they could make to achieve longed for outcomes. And it may affect the other parts of the self: Meditation can help practitioners listen to their bodies, handle stressful situations, and surface old memories to understand the thoughts and feelings associated with them.

An Environment of Transformational Learning

In a professional setting, leaders wishing to develop direct reports to learn on a deep level — thereby contributing to the success of the organization and team, as well as themselves — need to be aware of critical elements of a learning-conducive environment.

  • Psychological Safety: Leaders create a safe environment by establishing trust.
  • Ground Rules: They present clear structures and processes.
  • Learning Culture: They encourage respect, openness, honest and a willingness to push past one’s comfort zone.
  • Orchestrated Design for Facilitated Spontaneity: These elements provide the stability that will provide a balance to the spontaneity required for transformational learning; a system needs a level of order in order to also breed the relative degree of unpredictability that allows for innovation.

The preceding is drawn from the technical note A Holistic Framework for Transformational Learning (Darden Business Publishing), by Joseph W. Harder, Peter J. Robertson of the University of Southern California and Stephen Maiden. The note provides in-depth discussion of the above concepts and elaborates on the transformational learning matrix.


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About the Expert

Joseph W. Harder

Adjunct Associate Professor

Harder’s research interests encompass leadership, organizational change and reward systems. In particular he studies procedural justice in organizations, the effects of perceived injustice on individual performance, perceptions and effects of leadership, and pay-for performance systems; his dissertation topic was “Pay and Performance in Professional Sports.” 

Active in Executive Education as well as the MBA program, he has taught all over the world. Prior to joining the Darden faculty, Harder taught at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Santa Clara University. 

He is a passionate baseball fan and has attended 11 San Francisco Giants fantasy camps. 

B.S., Bethel College; MBA, Santa Clara University; Ph.D., Stanford University