We are acutely attuned to the environment in which we are in.
Cast your mind back to your first day at a new job. You’d be alert to how people behaved and interacted with each other. You might notice how people dress – whether it’s formal or informal. How people talk to each other – whether it’s relaxed or reserved. You’ll hear the noise levels and sense whether the environment feels casual or highly structured.
In many instances, the beliefs you form about those observations as to what’s expected and the workplace norms will likely influence you – your feelings, thoughts and behaviour.
This is social learning in action.
Humans are inherently social creatures. From birth, we are wired to connect, interact and learn from those around us. We learn from our parents, teachers, friends, colleagues and neighbours (to name but a few).
This complex network of relationships shapes our understanding of the world and our place in it. Consequently, while we are born with a personality, our feelings, thoughts and behaviours are moulded over time through an active socialisation process.
In psychology, this is known as Social Learning Theory.
Learning from others
The theory was developed by Psychologist Albert Bandura and explains how we learn from each other and how these learnings can (but not always) shape our behaviour and personality. Our mental state and motivation also play a role in the learning process.
It’s suggested that the learning occurs through a process of observation, imitation and modelling. By observing, we see the consequences of a person’s behaviour and are more likely to imitate rewarded behaviours.
Don’t sit on the sidelines
This process can help us quickly adapt to a new environment and more readily coordinate and cooperate with others. However, quickly adapting to social norms can have downsides if you are unaware it’s happening.
So, you want it to be a consciously active process.
Rather than sitting on the sidelines, elevate your consciousness to harness its power in your everyday working life.
The power of imitation
From a very young age, we imitate the behaviours of those around us, particularly our parents, grandparents or caregivers. We mimic facial expressions, gestures, and even speech patterns.
Remember, just as you learn from others, when you’re in a leadership role (or position of influence), people will learn from you too.
Strive to be a positive role model. Recognise and accept the impact your actions have on others. As someone said to me many years ago, ‘The actions you step over, you endorse’. When you ignore the poor behaviours of your team members, you are tacitly endorsing those behaviours. When you behave poorly, your role modelling sets the scene for sub-optimal team dynamics.
We’re exposed to many experiences and information in today’s digitally driven world.
Consequently, we don’t just learn from those around us but also from what we encounter online and through books, movies and so on. While this vicarious learning can help us expand our horizons and gain new perspectives, there are also pitfalls if we are not careful.
As researchers William Brady and colleagues demonstrate, social media platforms filter content, and this filtering process can interfere with our social learning and, in turn, facilitate the spread of misinformation and extreme views.
It’s critical, therefore, to diversify the media you consume and broaden your exposure to different cultures, ideas, and views. You want to ensure you are reading and hearing both sides of the debate.
Leverage social reinforcement
Humans are wired to seek social approval and validation. Positive reinforcement from others for our actions and behaviours can significantly influence our choices and motivate us to continue down a particular path.
Be conscious of your motivations. Recognise the power of positive reinforcement and its impact on you and your team.
In group-based settings, consider how you can actively learn from each other. Identify the opportunities to deepen learning and build team confidence, care and connection.
Our personalities are not static but evolve through interactions and learning from our social environment; while our beliefs and values are deeply influenced by the cultural and social contexts in which we grew up.
However, as we age, we can become more reluctant to try new things and do things differently. We can become more stuck in our ways and hold fixed beliefs and views. However, to continue growing and thriving in a constantly changing world, we must be ready to challenge our assumptions and thought processes.
Open yourself up to new experiences and people. Embrace the opportunity to learn more about yourself because any journey of self-discovery is enriched by the people encountered along the way. Seek to surround yourself with people who uplift and inspire you to be your best self.
In doing this, harness the power of socialisation, which is secured through conscious observation. Be deliberate about the learning you are taking on board. When you do that, you can more readily identify the behaviour that does not align with your values, purpose and what you stand for. Once identified, you can then consciously determine the behaviour you won’t adopt.
Notice your emotions
Our emotional response patterns are not set in stone. We learn how to cope with emotions, manage stress, and develop resilience by observing how others navigate similar situations.
Focus on understanding the emotions and intentions within and actively focus on nurturing self-awareness and empathy.
Make it personal
Everyone learns differently, but one common element is that learning is accelerated when a person is actively involved with the learning process.
As the famous Confucian text detailed, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; but directly involve me and I’ll make it my own“.
People learn more rapidly when the learning is relevant, and they take responsibility for it. Identify areas where you’d like to grow and develop. Whether building better relationships, improving communication skills, or enhancing your emotional well-being, setting specific goals can help you channel your social learning in an aligned direction.
The lovely aspect of social learning is it reminds us that we are not isolated but interconnected individuals who can learn, adapt, and thrive through our interactions with one another.