Learning Agility

It is not enough to have an established construct on what personal growth is. It is also important to identify how personal growth can be facilitated. Learning agility is a construct that offers views into how personal growth can be fostered in the context of large systems.

Learning agility is a construct that Lambardo and Eichinger (2000, p.326) used to describe character traits that successful employees and executives possess. The traits are described as the following:

1. People Agility-Describes people who know themselves well, learn from experience, treat others constructively, and are cool and resilient under the pressures of change.

2. Results Agility-Describes people who get results under tough conditions, inspire others to perform beyond normal, and exhibit the sort of presence that builds confidence in others.

3. Mental Agility-Describes people who think through problems from a fresh point of view and are comfortable with complexity, ambiguity, and explaining their thinking to others.

4. Change Agility-Describes people who are curious, have a passion for ideas, like to experiment with test cases, and engage in skill building activities.

De Meuse, Dai, Hallenbeck, & Tang (2008) found learning agility is found among the normal population and has a normal distribution curve. There is no significant difference between women and men in overall learning agility scores, although women tend to score higher in people agility (De Meuse et al., 2008; Lombardo & Eichinger, 2003). There is no significant difference between ages or ethnic groups in learning agility scores (De Meuse et al., 2008; Lombardo & Eichinger, 2003). Learning agility has shown to be a trait that can be measured and standardized (De Meuse, et al., Lambardo & Eichinger, 2000). These findings demonstrate the stability and usefulness of the construct in the general population.

Learning agility is defined as “the willingness and ability to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions” (De Meuse, Dai, & Hallenbeck., 2010, p. 120). It is described as “learning from experience, acumen, or agility and can be accomplished reliably, and that it relates to something of importance in organizations, namely one’s designation as a high potential” (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000, p. 322). Since the formulation of learning agility as a construct, it has been used to determine who would be positive employee for a potential hire, a potential candidate for a raise, and often in determining the better of two candidates for a single position (De Meuse et al., 2010). It is a useful construct when assessing a person’s potential in overcoming new problems and obtaining real world success in business.

More and more, corporations and military have been seeking to learn how to instill this character trait in others (De Meuse, 2010; Wong, 2004). Many researchers have attempted to understand the process of assisting others in developing learning agility (De Meuse). Some of the ingredients identified are: the person must be assisted in enjoying the challenge of learning new skills; supervisors need to be encouraging and trusting; humility must be present and fostered; challenging problems must be given to the individual; and once the individual has learned a new skill-set a new problem should be given that requires a new skill-set (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000).

Facilitating Enjoyment of the Challenge

Facilitating enjoyment learning requires that people are exposed to new tasks that move them outside of their comfort zones. The task should be just outside the present ability of the person to complete, but no so far out that the person will give up in the attempt (McCall, Lombardo, & Morrison, 1988). It is the satisfaction that comes from the completion of a seemingly difficult task that facilitates an enjoyment for learning (Freedman, 1998; Lloyd & Maguire, 2002; McCall et al., 1988; Wong, 2004).

These learning experiences are best when they are real life events that provide a strong emotional experience for the individual (Wong, 2004). The tasks must not be superficial but have real life consequences (McCauley, Ruderman, Ohlott, & Morrow, 1994). It is the individual’s willingness to attempt these events that allows the learner to develop new skills needed to overcome the task (McCall, et al., 1988).

Willingness to develop new skills plays a large role in a person’s ability to develop learning agility. Two people may experience the same new task, but only one may develop the new skills for overcoming the task (McCall & Lombardo, 1983). It is the enthusiasm of learning that the person brings to the table, which facilitates the desire to learn new skills. The enthusiasm to learn new skills was developed through the past experience of overcoming previous problems (Freedman, 1998; Lloyd & Maguire, 2002; McCall et al., 1988; Wong, 2004).

Supervising High Potential Learners

Employees who enter companies and demonstrate to be low potential learners do not necessarily continue to be low potential learners over time. The low potential employees can be assisted in learning how to develop learning agility when they are given tasks that require them to gain new skills. They also develop learning agility when they are given supervisors that assist them in growing from experiences (Bray, Campbell, & Grant, 1974).

There are two important parts in the supervisor’s role. The first one is to always insure that the supervisee is given a new task that is just outside of the supervisee’s comfort zone and current skill set (Bray et al., 1974; Eichinger, Lombardo, & Capretta, 2010). The second part in supervising the development of learning agility in others is to provide confidence and positive regard to the supervisee (Dominick & Gabriel, 2009). Those who seek to assist others in developing learning potential, must create an environment where the leader expresses confidence in the person. The leader should seek to provide positive perceptions of the trainee and communicate expectations of the trainee’s ability to complete the tasks at hand (Dominick & Gabriel).


Successful executives elicit feedback about their performance, experience a greater variety of different challenges, and acquire new skills in meeting the new task at a higher rate than unsuccessful executives (Lombardo & Eichinger, 1989). Of the reasons successful executives exhibit a high rate of learning agility is that they are humble enough to learn from their mistakes and acknowledge the need to develop a new skill (Finkelstein, 2003).

Finkelstein found that high agility learners were able to accept responsibility for their mistakes and attempted to fix any problems they may have caused (2003). Low agility learners blamed the mistakes on others or attempted to cover them up (Finkelstein). Brisco and Hall (1999) reasoned that the individual must be able to develop self-awareness in order to develop learning agility. Self-awareness gives the person the ability to react to the environment in a positive manner and own responsibility for his own actions (Briscoe & Hall).

Creating the Context

Contexts that provide the greatest opportunity for people to develop learning agility are those that are difficult, different from the ones the person is used to, and provide a variety of new ways to look at problems (Wong, 2004). Jobs that are high in emotion, unique, and provide a lot of variance create the environments that provide the most development for leaders (McCauley et al., 1994).

In developing a meaningful context, it is important that the context is a real world experience, not one artificially contrived. Artificial contrived tasks will not bring the internal satisfaction that real world tasks will. The real world experience has to be one that is in demand and requires completion (Wong, 2004).

Putting the Agility in Learning

One of the problems that result in agile learners ceasing to learn is that they become comfortable with themselves. They find a niche that they are very good at, develop a high sense of pride and comfort, and enjoy the feeling of success so much that they do not attempt a new task that requires them to learn new skills (Freedman, 1998).

In two studies exploring the difference between successful and unsuccessful executives, it was found that successful executives will continue to gain new skills when given new problems (McCall et al.,1988). Unsuccessful executives frequently experience new problems, but do not gain new skills. They simply increase reliance on the old skills that have brought them success in the past. They increase reliance to the point that they completely block out any attempts to learn new skills, thus becoming their own roadblock (McCall & Lombardo, 1983).

Learning Agility in a Religious Setting

There are situational factors that are present in a religious setting and are found to promote learning agility. These are the reliance on faith, believing their job is a calling from God, drawing on God for assistance, and looking to the examples of others. These factors were identified as assisting individuals to attempt a task that they would otherwise view as being insurmountable (McKenna, Boyd, & Yost, 2007).

Individuals found strength in believing God has called them to perform a specified task. This lead individuals to submit to the task and trust in God that they can finish the task out. It also led to a feeling that the individual did not always have to be right, but he could follow the promptings of God or others (McKenna et al., 2007).

Individuals also found new skills from observing mentors. The individuals looked toward spiritual mentors and sought their advice. They also observed skills that the mentors exhibited and utilized them. The feedback that was received from mentors and other religious members, whether positive or negative, also facilitated learning (McKenna et al., 2007).

Transferability of Skills

The theory of learning agility purposes that an individual that has increased their agility in learning is better equipped to handle a variety of new problems in new contexts (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000). The literature primarily focuses on individuals increasing their learning agility in large systems (e.g. churches, cooperations, and military). However, there is a gap in the literature that examines if increasing learning agility in a home increases a person’s ability to solve problems in new contexts.