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Corporate Culture

Learning in a Crisis: Culture and COVID-19

July 24, 2020
Organizational learning is not complicated. However, it does require leaders and teams to quickly translate what is happening around them into insights and actions.

We are in the midst of a disruption that is unprecedented in our lifetime. The daily news is dominated by stories and statistics that are simply staggering, be it the cases and fatalities due to COVID-19, the massive levels of unemployment or the uncertainty that creates dramatic shifts in the markets. The storm clouds seem so enormous that it is hard to see a silver lining, and yet stories of people stepping up to help one another are playing out in communities across the globe. As businesses make their way through Covid-19, we at Denison Consulting are seeing remarkable things happen. Organizations are adapting, and they are adapting at a rapid pace. Thus, the opportunity to learn and grow is also unprecedented.

As COVID-19 began to unfold, Denison recognized that the longer-term, systemic approach to developing culture was supplanted by the immediate need to cope, adapt and survive. In response, we began to implement a Resilience survey, free of charge, to organizations throughout the world.  The survey looks at a company’s ability to survive during hardship and to emerge better-prepared to face future challenges. Within a few weeks Denison collected data from thousands of employees across several continents. When we asked if their organization was effectively adapting to COVID-19, an average of 88% of employees either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.  

Because of our experience in the field of organizational culture, we were in a position to be able to look at a number of organizations for whom we had Resilience survey data and organizational culture data.  This created a unique opportunity to begin exploring relationships between culture and the ability to respond to COVID-19.  One insight that stood out for us immediately was in the area of Organizational Learning, the ability to create a safe environment for learning from successes and failures and where learning a priority.  What we saw was that organizations who struggled with learning before the pandemic, were also viewed as less resilient in their response to COVID-19.  In other words, they were less likely to seize the opportunity for adaptation that the crisis created.

Organizational learning is not complicated. However, it does require leaders and teams to quickly translate what is happening around them into insights and actions.  There are three fundamental beliefs you will need in your culture that will help you navigate through the crisis.  


High-performing organizations believe there is always more to learn. They are curious. They continually ask themselves “what could we be doing better?” or “what are we missing?.”  Questions are both encouraged and expected. People push themselves and their colleagues to critically think through problems and solutions. They know that ambiguity exists for everyone, including their customers and their competition. They do not to shy away from it. Rather, they embrace ambiguity and are confident that they can work through it. The high performers approach it with a positive, proactive mindset.  

Curiosity may not be embraced in your organization today. It can take a backseat to the day-to-day execution problems and issues that exist in every company. Remember that questions spark curiosity.  During COVID-19 we have seen clients with the strongest cultures asking questions such as:

  • What would happen if we told everyone to work from home tomorrow? (and did this prior to any stay-at-home orders)
  • How are our customers being impacted by this crisis and how can we help them?
  • What are we best suited to do in this time of need?
  • What do our employees need to be able to work effectively from home?
  • How do we elevate our communications at a time when people want to know what is going on?


Organizations that excel at organizational learning believe it is critical to share information. In high- performing cultures information is not used as a source of power or shared only on a “need-to-know” basis. They understand for people to make better decisions, they need information. People are recognized for creating awareness and contributing ideas. These organizations are transparent with respect to successes and failures. As one client told us, “concealing information or covering up mistakes is much more detrimental to your career than sharing.”  

There is a dizzying amount of information coming at us during times of crisis. It is the ability to share, discuss and make collective sense of that information that separates the high performers from others.  Once again, sharing may not be baked into your cultural DNA today. This is how great companies share information:

  • They use a variety of communication channels including a combination of technology and face-to-face interactions to distribute and discuss information.  
  • Historical knowledge is transferred from department-to-department or person-to-person, so no one ever must hear the phrase “Why do we always reinvent the wheel?” 
  • They listen and respond to the voice of the workplace. They use employee surveys to gather insights from the broader workforce.
  • Managers get out and walk around to share information, ask questions and to learn what is top-of-mind for employees.

Psychological Safety 

The organizations that fully embrace organizational learning believe that you must create a safe environment in which vulnerabilities do not result in blame or embarrassment. During the COVID-19 crisis, we are all feeling vulnerable. No one has the answers we are looking for and mistakes will be made. Our willingness to offer ideas and propose solutions to the challenges we face is dependent on how we believe those ideas will be received.  

When you look at organizations who are adaptable and innovative, many will tell you it is because they are good at tolerating mistakes and failures. They recognize that innovations are rarely perfect. They emerge through creativity, action, and adjustment. Those who are not innovative or adaptable often have stories about personal consequences for failures that took place throughout the organization’s history. Comments about “you remember what happened to that person” become part of the company lore. To be a true learning organization, you must accept a certain amount of failure.  Without it, you cannot create a safe environment for your people to be creative, innovative or to learn.  

Even though psychological safety may not be the norm in your company today, it is foundational to your ability to create a learning organization. Without psychological safety, curiosity is stifled, and sharing is equated with personal exposure. Organizations that have psychologically safe environments are characterized by:

  • Leaders who openly share their own mistakes and failures, as well as what they learned from those experiences
  • Constructive questioning of other perspectives, a willingness to challenge the majority view
  • Recognizing those who are open about mistakes made and lessons learned
  • A willingness to ask for help
  • Low tolerance for finger-pointing and blaming

Building Adaptability

As organizations began to navigate their way through this pandemic, some have done so better than others. It has not been easy, and for many the challenges have seemed insurmountable. However, some organizations seem to have had an advantage during the crisis. The advantage they had was they were curious, they shared information, and did so in an environment that recognizes that everyone is vulnerable. They understand that opportunity often exists during times of crisis and are approaching it in a proactive manner. They are not trying to bounce back from this crisis; they are seeking to spring forward. Ask yourselves what you are learning and how you will apply those learnings to future challenges, and you too will be on your way to becoming the learning organization that leads, not follows in times of crisis.  

Jay Richards is a member of the founding team at Denison, a firm based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, specializing in corporate culture and leadership development. For 20 years, Jay has worked with manufacturing firms in improving their culture and leadership.  

Bryan Adkins Ed.D. is the CEO of Denison.  Bryan’s professional background includes leadership positions within the manufacturing, professional, and nonprofit sectors. He combines this broad experience with a thorough understanding of the Denison Model and related diagnostic tools to facilitate organizational change.

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