Switch, shift and shuffle with Zanele Njapha, the Unlearning Lady


Zanele, who will be delivering the keynote address at the CHRO South Africa Smart Work Summit in Cape Town, uses key unlearning principles to help organisations with adapting to new ways of work.

HR departments are constantly emphasising the importance of learning, unlearning, and relearning as organisations navigate the changing landscape of work. CHROs are also now in a position to encourage employees to embrace continuous adaptation and skills development.

Enter Zanele Njapha, a teacher-turned-CEO at The UnLearners, who is renowned for her success in guiding companies like Coca-Cola, Visa, Philip Morris, PwC, Discovery and Volkswagen to embrace the transformative power of unlearning and embrace the future of work with enthusiasm.

“In many cases, our most challenging task in the change process is not the learning, but the unlearning - through consistently sharing this message, clients started to associate me with the theme and the rest is history,” she says.

Zanele spoke with CHRO South Africa to give attendees at the summit a preview of what to expect from her riveting keynote.

1. What indicators are there that employees need to unlearn?

Feeling like they’ve hit a plateau or are stuck with their creativity or innovation output. When we’re rebranding, scaling or transitioning as a business, nobody's behaviours have shifted (talent is still acting in the outdated way).  A new system/process/tool or even leader is introduced, but buy-in and take-up is extremely low and slow.

2. In a world where we are told to learn, unlearn and relearn, what are your key tips for CHROs and what does it mean for companies?

  • Build systems for ‘letting go’:

Remember to pair every conversation about implementing something new with the question ‘if we want to make room for something new, what needs to go in order for that room to be made?’

This question unlocks the awareness that what's new cannot successfully coexist with the outdated. It may mean looking for ways to support the process of peeling away from business-as-usual because transitioning implies a death of the outdated, and death needs psychological processing or we cannot heal from what we’ve lost.

  • Equip with key tools for navigating transitions:

When a team member (or yourself) is struggling with a transition, pay attention to where the fear may be coming from. In other words, what are they/you afraid of losing, becoming or getting at the end of the transition? This way, you leverage deep awareness to find a solution, without acting from a place of fear, when nothing empowering gets achieved.

  • Create change agency:

A sense of community where each person has taken true ownership of the transformation journey has proven to be the most effective predictor of change success in our work with global clients.

So build communities, not silos. Foster love (for the mission, your clients and each other) and not unhealthy competition within your team.

When a group of people who share a commitment rally behind it - they are unstoppable.

They can also subscribe to the The UnLearners Podcast, where we share weekly tips, tools, stories for leaders and unlearners who wish to consistently tap into new ways of seeing, doing and being.

3. How can leaders encourage a culture of learning and adaptability within their teams?

One thing that is most impactful is experimentation. A team that experiments frequently learns and fails quickly - and they build and retain that momentum.

So, have ongoing small-scale experiments that keep you testing the boundaries, rewriting the less rigid rules and learning about your capacity.

This way, you are not just adapting to the environment, but you are able to be on the forefront of impactful innovations that set the standard for others.

4. What practical tips do you have for individuals to unlearn and relearn?

These tips are based on the insight that a flexible brain is built over time - so we must train our brains to change, adapt and change with ease… (this is a great place to start with building mental flexibility)

  • Switch: It is all about finding a different method to your everyday madness. This simple activity trains your brain to begin building new neural connections that serve you as you think creatively and innovate at work. You can apply switch to how you prepare your peanut butter sandwich, brush your hair, drive to work, etc. Everyday, encourage yourself to do the usual things in an unusual way.
  • Shift: Has your room been set up in the exact same way for 5 years or more? Now it’s quite normal for us to enjoy our living spaces in the same way because they bring a sense of certainty, comfort and give us a level of autonomy - we feel like there’s a little corner of the world we can control. Unfortunately what starts to happen is that because we spend so much time there, we get very little stimulation that encourages us to think or act differently, so we can tap into our innate creativity and capacity for change. You can apply shifts by changing around the items in your environment. Even if it’s just the pot plant, find a new place for it. We must shift the things we see every so often - you can try to do this quarterly and make it fun.
  • Shuffle: My personal favourite! Think about the people you spend most of your time with, the places you frequent and the activities you engage in constantly (almost like clockwork and even in the exact same order). Most of us find we spend time with people who fall into the same occupation, industry, cultural group or even hold the beliefs we do. So we get stuck in echo chambers, where all we hear are the exact opinions we hold - so we never really learn, change or grow. You can go to that new restaurant that just opened, listen to that music genre your children think is the best thing since sliced bread or even add something new to your morning routine.

5. How can individuals overcome resistance to change when it comes to unlearning old habits and embracing new technologies?

The best tip for this is linking the change or new tech to the person’s WIIFM - their What’s-In-It-For-Me switch. This way, you switch from external motivation for behaviour change to intrinsic motivation. When our leaders (or ourselves) can link the change we wish to make to something we deeply care about and wish to achieve, not only does morale increase, but so does buy-in.

6. How do you suggest balancing the integration of new technologies with the preservation of human-centric skills?

Systems that make our non-negotiables clear are extremely helpful here, in order for every digital transformation project to meet and maintain the organisations standards.

I’d say the key thing with this balancing act is understanding that it’s not a matter of balance but allowing the two to exist interchangeably and in tandem.

At times, especially with rapid and large leaps in digital transformation, we may find our priority shift to more of a tech focus. When this is the case, we merely find a system that will prioritise the adoption and change, without compromising.

When, for instance we face an issue of an overworked team, we should ask how do we prioritise our people and their wellbeing

At the end of it all, it’s about having our priorities well organised, but realigning and checking in with them consistently to see if they remain relevant or need to be reorganised. Gone are the days of doing performance reviews every 6 months - the same applies here - priorities shift, so we must normalise checking in more and building systems that support this change in what is most important at the moment.


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