The Role of Consequence in Learning

We all experience consequence: the result of our actions, imposed upon us, often unavoidable. Consequence acts as a limiter or moderator of our actions. At 21 months, my son is busy learning what consequence means, and i am busy trying to ensure that he does so in ways that are not too painful in the moment, long term in their impact, or serious in effect. I was unconcerned when he bounced a soft ball that came back and hit him in the face, startling him: but i do not let him near the boiling kettle in the kitchen.

In the Landscape of Community research, people described how the dominant moderator of their individual behaviour was social consequence, the judgement of others. When asked to put a figure on it, they said that 70% of consequence was social, and only 30% held in the rules and formal judgement of the organisation. Of course, this calculation is not always the same: other types of consequence are entirely formal, or entirely social: if you fail to answer assessment questions correctly, you may fail a formal test. If you steal, you may be arrested by the formal entity of the law. If you betray trust, you may be excluded from your family.

Consequence comes in different flavours. Consider three of them: ‘Formal’ consequence (the rules of a system), ‘Social’ consequence (the judgement of others), and ‘Physical’ consequence (the result of our actions.

So if i break a rule, that’s formal consequence (if i am caught), if i betray your secret, that’s social consequence (if you catch me), and if i drop a brick on my foot, that’s physical consequence (which is true in all cases). So type one and two, formal and social’, depend on being discovered, whilst type three, physical, is absolute.

In many ways, we can understand consequence as sitting at the heart of learning: sometimes at the front, where there is a perceived consequence of ignorance and inaction, sometimes during, where there is consequence of exploring and rehearsing, and sometimes at the end, where there is consequence of failure.

And sometimes consequence, with the pain it brings, can be a valuable part of learning design itself.

To give you an example, in the Leadership programme i’m currently designing, as part of the design process, i build a ‘Gradient of Consequence’. Essentially this lets me map consequence against engagement and action over time. In the early stages, this is about ensuring that delegates generate momentum, and later on it is about ensuring we hold the edges of the system. So partly it is about a map of the distribution of consequence over time, and secondly it is about the type and experience of it. An example may be attendance: the gradient of consequence may start with an email, a call, a second email, an escalation to a manager, a reflection on opportunity, and ultimately exclusion. Or not: you may similarly decide NOT to apply consequence. But it should be an active decision to do so. That way we ensure consistency and fairness of approach.

We can consider more widely the notion of how consequence impacts behaviour: with Organisational learning we often seek to change behaviour, and imagine that our challenge is to ‘show’, or guide it, but often the challenge is not understanding, but rather finding the rehearsal space to prototype new behaviour within a dominant culture that is not used to it. Essentially the limitation on learning is not individual ability so much as cultural inertia and judgement.

It’s useful to visualise this in terms of the Spotlight of Consequence. Each of us labour under it’s light, but where is it pointing? And who controls it?

In formal Organisations, it’s often control from above: people who are more senior than us hold the light and shine it down upon us. Peer pressure and judgement, by contrast, is shone from the side. As we deviate from the norm, or from the accepted, our peers and colleagues shine that light upon us. And maybe in a truly egalitarian, dynamic, and fair, organisation, the spotlight can be shone upwards: either because we have permission or because we seize it and turn it around.

Understanding the Control of Consequence (who holds the light, where is it shone, and what shelter do we have) can be valuable when considering behavioural change, and broader change in turn.

The relationship between learning and consequence is not always clear cut: much as my son is learning about types and gradients of consequence, so too do we retain that perspective as adults. It’s not as clear cut as avoiding or accepting consequence: we may choose to insulate ourselves from it. To reduce it from severe, to gentle, or to willingly gamble with it, for the chance of some greater gain.

As with so much of our psychology, what at first appears simple, even rule based, turns out to be illogical and often both complex, and inconsistently applied!

Another way to view consequence, with this in mind, is as a sphere.

I sit in the middle of my sphere, and you sit outside of it (albeit in a sphere of your own). IF the rules of the Organisation, or related system, are clear, then there is a perceptible hard edge of consequence. I know how far i can push it if i am willing. But often the rules are not clear, or worse, the consistency with which they are applied is erratic. Perhaps i see you getting away with things that i cannot, so i choose to insulate myself.

Part of the consequence we experience is imposed by external forces: be it physical, social, or formal. Together, that forms the hard boundary of the sphere. But i rarely operate up to the edges of the boundary. Instead, i leave an insulation gap.

If i trust you, and if the rules are both clear and consistent, then i may be willing to operate close to the edge of that sphere, which is really the space of opportunity, perhaps even the space of learning. But if i am unsure, if i am not motivated, if i am fearful, or if you are inconsistent, then i am more likely to hold myself well away from the heat of the boundary. I create a bigger insulation gap.

In this model, our challenge is to create the conditions for learning in which the application of consequence is clear, but also consistent. Which is hard, because we only control part of it.

Rules sit in the formal space, but culture, i suspect, sits in the social one. So culture is the dominant influence, and culture is the one thing that is beyond our control in a direct sense.

There are ways that we can impact this: the most obvious is to make the implicit explicit: be clear what consequence applies in which context, and ensure that the lived experience matches the description.

In my own Landscape of Trust research, it was clear that people trust the experience of consequence far more highly than your description of it: if the Organisations says ‘it’s ok to fail, on the whole, people do not believe it. Or rather, they do not believe it until they have seen it to be ok, or have experienced it. And crucially that experience must be judged to be fair and consistent.

This is a space where Organisations typically go wrong: they say it is ok to fail, and then it is, and it is, and it is again, and then it isn’t, and some gets executed.

And again, we learn through social systems: i do not have to burn myself to learn that the oven is hot. If i ‘hear’ of someone who got burnt, then that is enough to limit my action over time (this is the shadow of culture: failure is multi generational).

Talking about consequence can feel like a bad thing, as if we are trying to be mean, or unfair to people. But consequence is a natural part of all systems: physical, formal, and social. If you have a formal system with no consequence, you have not system at all. If you have a society with no consequence, then you have no society at all. And if you have a physical system with no consequence, then it is a fictional or imagined system.

Instead turn that around: seek to understand how consequence operates within your own ecosystem: how it is held, how is it directed, how is it applied. And use that knowledge to shape learning spaces, experiences, and opportunities, that allow people to understand, and adopt, their own perspective of consequence. To take on what they choose, to avoid what is painful, unless that pain is necessary to learn, and to ensure that even if the experience is painful, it is always fair and experienced equally.

About julianstodd

Author and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the Social Age. I’ve written ten books, and over 2,000 articles, and still learning...
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