Learning in a Crisis: Culture and COVID-19

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Learning in a Crisis: Culture and COVID-19

As of March 2021, we are still in the midst of a disruption that is unprecedented in our lifetime. The daily news is still dominated by stories and statistics that are simply staggering, be it the cases due to COVID-19, or the uncertainty that creates dramatic shifts in the markets. The storm clouds seem is enormous, but luckily, there are a lot of stories of people stepping up to help one another in communities across the globe.

As businesses make their way through Covid-19, we have noticed that many organizations are adapting, and they are adapting at a rapid pace. Thus, the opportunity to learn and grow is also unprecedented!

A year ago, as COVID-19 began to unfold, the systemic approach to developing culture was supplanted by the immediate need to cope, adapt and survive. This has been showing how this situation has created a unique opportunity for companies to begin exploring relationships between culture and the ability to respond to hard challenges.

At Beem, one thing we’ve noticed happening and that stood out for us was in the area of Organizational Learning – the ability to create a safe environment for learning from successes and failures has become a key part of many companies’ everyday life. The organizations that struggled with learning before the pandemic have been 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.

What were these companies missing from their cultural value proposition for not being able to cope with the situation? Well, organizational learning requires leaders and teams to quickly translate what is happening around them into insights and actions. This is never easy.

But there are three fundamental beliefs we all need in our culture that can help us navigate through the crisis. And this feels like the perfect moment to check them out! Let’s do it.




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 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. But remember: questions spark curiosity! And during COVID-19, those companies that had the strongest cultures kept asking themselves questions such as:

  • How are our customers being impacted by this crisis and how can we help them?
  • 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.

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. And 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.
  • 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 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 are being made. But 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 that 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 that are not innovative or adaptable often have stories about personal consequences for failures that took place throughout the organization’s history.

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.

Without psychological safety, curiosity is stifled, and sharing is equated with personal exposure. Organizations that have psychologically safe environments are often managed by leaders who openly share their own mistakes, have implemented a willingness to challenge the majority view by questioning constructively others’ perspectives, and have a low tolerance for finger-pointing and blaming.



As organizations 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 continuously approaching it in a proactive manner.

They are not trying to bounce back from this crisis; they are seeking to spring forward! We’ve got to a point where we should all be asking ourselves: what are we learning, and how will we apply these learnings to future challenges?

If your company can do so, you too will be on your way to becoming the learning organization that leads, and not follows, in times of crisis.


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