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Mark Burns

Plus One Learning Limited

Author, Speaker, Facilitator

Read more from Mark Burns

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Learning at work: the three barriers that limit learning potential


Why are some people open to learning while others, in similar organisations/roles, are completely closed off from it? There are three main barriers that leaders need to overcome to turn employees from sceptics into learning enthusiasts. 

I have always been fascinated by the way in which some teams and individuals demonstrate a real openness to learning whereas others, often in the same or in similar organisations, appear to have become closed to the impact that learning can have on performance, motivation and personal growth.

Why might individuals and teams become closed to learning over time? It’s unlikely that being closed to learning was a key element on the person specification when they were recruited. 

Through my work with many leaders and organisations over the last 12 years, I’m convinced that there are three key barriers that limit the potential for learning. In order to achieve learning success, leaders need to focus on minimising the impact of these.

The barriers are: processing overload, low relational trust and inaccurate self-perception.

Processing overload

‘Learning? We don’t have time for it!’ can be a common cry in organisations where processing overload exists. 

Processing overload is characterised by a feeling that there just isn’t the time or energy for learning. 

This can often be due to a work environment where individuals have information overload and don’t have the bandwidth to process anything new.

For leaders, processing capacity can be enhanced in two key ways. First, by investing in deep dialogue to achieve shared clarity about processes and what high performance actually represents.

Second, by instilling a relentless focus on identifying and eliminating tasks and actions that have no positive impact in teams.

It’s worth remembering that processing overload can also be created by poor learning design – especially when learning programmes fail to account for how the human brain processes new information and how learning takes place.

Low relational trust

Relational trust is crucial for learning to take place in teams. Indeed, it provides the oxygen for learning to thrive. Trust must exist not only between individuals and their leader, but also within the team itself.   

Where relational trust is low, individuals are less willing to ask questions when they are unclear on an issue or task. 

It can make them fearful about making mistakes or cause them to worry about how they will be perceived by others. 

Where processing capacity is nurtured, and when strong relational trust and accurate self-perception are all in place, the conditions for open learning are present. 

Indeed, it can promote an unhealthily competitive environment, rather than a collaborative one. 

Low trust can lead to reticence about seeking and giving honest feedback. 

The giving of high quality feedback is key to improving performance, and to maintaining high motivation and heightened trust.

Tackling low relational trust

Where leaders are seeking to improve relational trust in teams, there are three key areas to focus on:

  • Personal regard: a key influence in shaping the answer to the question, ‘do I trust that person?’, will be whether that individual demonstrates personal regard for me. Personal regard refers to whether others treat you as a person worthy of respect and value.
  • Professional regard: this refers to the extent to which individuals feel valued and supported as employees. When this is strong, individuals feel they are working as part of a team that is supporting their professional growth and development.
  • Modelling competence: even with the presence of personal and professional regard, this is a key driver in building relational trust. As Professor David DeSteno, author of The Truth About Trust argues, “even if everyone likes you, you have to be competent to be trusted.

Inaccurate self-perception

The final key barrier occurs where individuals hold perception gaps about their performance. Perception gaps compare an individual’s assessment of his or her performance to the reality of their actual performance. 

Where an individual overrates their performance, known as the ‘Dunning–Kruger effect’, they are less likely to see the need or urgency to engage with learning in order to improve their performance. After all, why would they? They ‘know’ that their performance level is good enough.  

Where processing overload is a barrier to learning, relational trust issues are likely to be present too – team members frequently attribute the causes of processing overload to the perceived failings of their leader.  

On the other hand, others might underestimate their own performance, suffering from what is termed ‘imposter syndrome’. 

This perception gap can also inhibit openness to learning. These individuals are likely to lack confidence because they don’t think that they will be up to coping with the additional challenge of new learning.

Leaders who are effective in creating an environment where perception gaps are not allowed to grow, focus on the following areas:

  • Lack of shared clarity: in organisations where what constitutes ‘high performance’ is unclear, there is the risk that individuals develop their own truth about what this represents. There is the risk that they then compare themselves with this perception, hence the increased probability of overrating or underrating themselves.  
  • Lack of effective feedback: individuals receive feedback on their own performance from two main sources. The most frequent feedback comes from themselves. Where there is a lack of shared clarity about ‘high performance’, there is the risk that this self-feedback is inaccurate. Feedback from others can be ineffective too – either because of its absence or because it is not kind, specific and helpful.
  • Ego: all of us have an ego, and it can be a help or a hindrance to becoming a better learner. 

Having an overinflated ego can lead individuals to overrate their performance. They rarely see the value in reflecting more deeply or taking feedback from others. Conversely, individuals can also suffer from having insufficiently developed egos. It can lead them to filter out their successful contributions and thus allow them to maintain their disempowering beliefs that they are not good performers and are incapable of being one in the future.


Where processing capacity is nurtured, and when strong relational trust and accurate self-perception are all in place, the conditions for open learning are present. 

They are like the three legs of a stable, well-constructed stool – supporting the environment for powerful and successful development.

The absence of any one of them will have the same impact on learning as the removal of a leg from the stool: it loses stability and falls over. It’s essential, therefore, that leaders ensure that all are strong.

In my experience, where individuals are closed to learning, it is not usually the presence of just one of these barriers in isolation. 

For example, where processing overload is a barrier to learning, relational trust issues are likely to be present too – team members frequently attribute the causes of processing overload to the perceived failings of their leader.  

While removing the three aforementioned barriers and in their place establishing the foundations of processing capacity, strong relational trust and accurate self-perception may seem to be a major undertaking, be reassured.

As the foundations are interdependent, working to embed one will often produce a simultaneous effect on the other two.

Interested in this topic? Read How to get businesses on board with learning and development.

Author Profile Picture
Mark Burns

Author, Speaker, Facilitator

Read more from Mark Burns

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