Expert Q & A: How can philanthropic organizations create a learning culture even while “leading under pressure?”

By: Dr. Lynn Perry Wooten, David J. Nolan Dean and Professor of Management and Organizations for Cornell University’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management; co-author with Dr. Erika Hayes James, Leading Under Pressure: From Surviving to Thriving Before, During, and After a Crisis

For the last decade my co-author, Erika James, and I have researched how organizations lead under pressure and especially in crisis situations. Although most organizations do not frequently confront crises, leading under pressure has become a new norm. Pressurized situations can be the result of budget constraints, time limitations, stakeholders’ demands, shortage of resources or employee strife.   From our research, we discovered that an essential capacity for leading under pressure is the ability of an organization to learn. Organizational learning is viewed as an adaptive process where organizations develop knowledge over time by incorporating the experiences and expertise of its members.  These collective experiences and repertoires of expertise are a function of both personal mastery and team mastery. It is these learning capabilities that enable organizations to change their routines in response to environmental threat and opportunities.

So, what are the implications for philanthropic organizations that strive to learning while managing in pressurized environments?

Confront Barriers

First, my co-author and I propose that organizations must confront barriers to learning because in high pressure situations organizations tend to develop defense routines.  Defense routines are coping mechanisms, but can result in ineffective behavior. These defense routines can entail denying a problem exists. In other instances, defense mechanisms may involve justifying the organization’s behavior despite that it may be the root cause of the problem or distract from the solution.  In addition to defense mechanisms, organizations often fail to draw upon its memory when managing under pressure.  For grantmaking organizations to be able to leverage its memory demands systems that translate tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. Also, it entails recordkeeping and effective communication among organizational members so that best practices are shared and documented.

Scan the Environment

Second, we suggest to learn, organizations constantly scan their environment not only for new ideas, but also to be attuned to external trends.  Often the ability to innovate is developed when organizations look beyond their comfort zone and combine their ideas with the ideas of others to create something new.   In addition, we emphasize to our students that learning occurs when you are following macro-environment trends, or what many strategy scholars refer to as the “PEST+G” acronym – political, economic, socio-cultural, technological and global trends.  As grantmakers, how does your organization keep abreast of macro-environment trends?  Do you use this information to create future scenarios or systems thinking that can inform your grantmaking activities?

Shared Culture

Third, our research suggests that learning organizations have an organizational culture that is guided by a shared mission, vision and values. The shared mission, vision and values are communicated, celebrated and embodied in the achievement of the organization’s goals.  The mission provides direction for learning activities and is the basis for high quality connections. The vision creates energy for futuristic thinking and action planning. The values serve as a moral compass for how organizational members treat each other and their stakeholders. Does your organization have a shared mission, vision and values?  Are the mission and vision central to the organization’s learning activities especially as it relates to grantmaking? Moreover, how does the organization use its values so that it is resilient and has the focus it needs for learning in the midst of difficult situations? In closing, our research views pressurized situation as opportunities for learning. These situations trigger individuals, teams and organizations to analyze complexity and seek new sources of knowledge.  They call for reflective behavior and learning through improvisation, resourcefulness and partnerships.  These situations challenge leaders to balance the competing tensions of exploring the external environment while creating an internal culture of excellence. If you are mindful, these peak learning experiences can enhance skills and make you better grantmakers.

Content Partner: LearnPhilanthropy

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2018 -- updated from original post in 2014

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Dr. Lynn Perry Wooten



Organizational Development - Strengthening/Building Your Team
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