The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus produced only one work, of which few fragments survive. He is largely remembered for his theory of flux – that the only constant is change. So it is for any organization, capitalistic endeavors, and not-for-profits, alike.
Since the middle of the last century, largely due to technology, change has accelerated by orders of magnitude. And yet we still accept the commonly held belief that people resist change. Well, most of us anyway. According to organizational expert Peter Senge, “people don’t resist change, they resist being changed!”
Organizational change initiatives are notoriously subject to failure, and enterprises that try to force change upon its employees, from the top down, are often met with resistance and even passive-aggression. How then, in an age where adapting to market and competitive pressures, socio-political upheaval, and non-stop obsolescence can organizations create environments for employees to produce radical improvements in performance? The answer may be found using transformative learning.
First identified and codified by sociologist Jack Mezirow, transformative learning espouses three principal ideas:
- Centrality of experience – you are a vessel of a lifetime of experiences that inform your beliefs and behaviors.
- Critical reflection – essential to learning, questioning your assumptions initiates an understanding of what your perspectives mean.
- Rational discourse – through discourse with others, moving beyond prior assumptions, beliefs, and perspectives opens up the possibility for new understanding and an appreciation of others’ views.
The very, very short answer is Transformative Learning is the process of moving from firmly held beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions to a place of questioning and reflection, and with an open mind, to considering new possibilities in which a fresh understanding and a new way of looking arises.
Still puzzled? Try this on…
While there are several ways in which transformative learning gets applied in an organization, it’s important to understand that organizations don’t transform unless and until its people do. While enterprises possess cultures and behaviors, they still function as a result of the beliefs and standards held by their employees. Learning in this way starts with your personal exploration.
Merriam Webster alternatively defines dilemma as “a difficult or persistent problem.” No transformation is possible without the occurrence of a challenging, sometimes upsetting event that provides a moment of pause where you question a previously held view, assumption, or perspective. Allowing yourself to fully experience the dilemma on an emotional level is crucial. Research has shown that transformative learning can be deeply affecting, and that working through confusion and resistance is part of the process.
In order to alter your view of something, it’s necessary to perform critical reflection. If you really look, you’ll see that you possess perspectives and have frames-of-reference that have been formed by aspects of your past, like your education, from your parents and siblings, from religious leaders, employers, and a host of other constituent elements. This is an opportunity to ask: do these ways of thinking and being continue to serve you? Engaged in this inquiry, is there something new that you are starting to see?
Transformative Learning emerges in conversation with others. This is not a time to go inside your own head and body. This kind of learning is discursive and happens between interested parties or communities engaged in a conversation where something new can arise. And while it’s great to see new possibilities, new actions must be taken in order for Transformative Learning to be successful. Something must be created to replace the way you or your company has always performed. Otherwise, it will be business as usual.
One of the criticisms of Transformative Learning is that it is difficult to quantify its effectiveness. One way to measure is to observe if there’s been a change in assumptions, a change in perspectives, and a change in behaviors. Particularly if transformative learning is used to assess organizational change, performing periodic surveys with employees will help validate if its working. And while the ultimate goal of a business is to improve performance, you must first look to see if changes in behavior and attitude is occurring. Performance (a topic for another time) often improves after behavior evolves.
Employing transformative learning is in itself a learning process. You will experience breakdowns and the results it produce may be unexpected. They may even surprise you. But breakdowns inevitably lead to breakthroughs, and that’s precisely the point of Transformative Learning. Each new transformation provokes new possibilities and with new possibilities, improved performance are revealed.
Heraclitus said, “You can never step in the same river twice,” meaning that the river is always changing, always in flux. Here’s to navigating all your rivers. May they flow gently and you with them.
Baldwin, Cheryl K. (2019). Transformative Learning and Identity: A review and synthesis of Dirkx and Illeris, Adult Education Research Conference. https://newprairiepress.org/aerc/2019/papers/25
Brown, Kathleen M. (2005) Transformative Adult Learning Strategies: Assessing the Impact on Pre-Service Administrators’ Beliefs, Educational Considerations, 32(2). https://doi.org/10.4148/0146-9282.1242
Graham, Daniel W. (2019). Heraclitus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/
McKinsey LD. (2014, May 20). McKinsey on Change Management [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k69i_yAhEcQ
Merriam-Webster (2021) Dilemma. Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary (Online Edition). https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dilemma
Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Portret van Heraclitus. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl
Senge, P. (2000). The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.