Engaging People in Learning
Creating Enthusiasm for Team Development
Chris manages a group of skilled, productive, well-rounded professionals.
However, they spend almost no time developing their skills, and he's concerned that his organization could fall behind as a result.
When Chris offers his people training, they are indifferent at best. They say that they're just too busy right now, that they know all that they need to know, or that the training is just a time-wasting "box-ticking exercise." He also suspects that some are scared of being "shown up" as not having particular skills, or don't want the embarrassment of participating in role-playing or other exercises.
Ongoing learning and skills development are essential to your team members' success, but it can be a challenge to get them to take the first steps. So, how can you encourage your people to develop their skills? And how can you ensure that they do their best when they participate in learning activities, rather than just turning up because they must?
We'll answer these questions and more in this article. We'll explore the benefits of long-term learning and development, and we'll look at how to get your team excited and engaged in the learning process.
Why Develop Your People?
In many business sectors, it's incredibly important for your people to keep on improving their skills. The business environment is changing fast, ideas and innovations are in constant demand, and people who don't keep their skills up-to-date can quickly find themselves "out of touch."
What this means is that, for your organization and team to grow and take advantage of new opportunities, it needs people who are expanding their current skills and are learning new ways of thinking and working. Your team can then stay competitive and up-to-date with industry trends and changes.
How Adults Learn
It may sound obvious, but it's first worth highlighting that as adults, we learn in a different way from children. This affects the way that you engage your team in learning.
American educator Malcolm Knowles developed his Theory of Andragogy to explain how and why adults learn. Knowles said that training needs to take account of the fact that adults are self-directed. He also pointed out that adult learners want to know why training is relevant, before they learn.
Therefore, it's up to you to create interest and excitement in learning, without forcing it on people (which could cause a backlash). It's a subtle but important line to walk! You also need to communicate clearly why learning is important, and explain how learning ties in to people's personal and professional goals.
Barriers to Engagement
Before we look at how you can engage your people in learning and development, it helps to understand why people avoid it:
- Time: Your people may resist developing new skills because their days are full with other priorities. Right now, learning a new skill or competency isn't essential, so they put it off for another day.
- Lack of information: Team members might know that they need to keep learning to stay up-to-date on their industry, but they might not know how or where to start.
- Low confidence: If people have been unsuccessful in learning new skills in the past, they might hesitate to engage in learning now.
Lack of resources can also affect engagement in learning. If your organization or department has a small training budget, consider using low-cost options such as online training, cross-training, and on-the-job training.
How to Engage Your Team
Use the following strategies to overcome these barriers to engagement, and to get people involved in their learning and development:
Identify Learning Styles
People have different learning styles. Some learn best by watching someone else, and by then using the new skill themselves. Others learn best by reading or listening.
If your people express fear or hesitation about learning something new, then perhaps they've had a bad experience with training that didn't accommodate their particular learning style.
Our article on Learning Styles helps you uncover your personal learning style. You can review this article with your people to help them discover the style that works best for them.
Once you know how they learn best, you can guide them to development opportunities that cater to their particular style.
Set Learning Goals
What does each person on your team need to learn to perform better in his or her current role? What do your team members want to learn?
Start by helping them identify what's most important to them in their current role. Perhaps they need to know how to help people empathically, be seen as an expert, or negotiate with new clients.
Next, discuss what they could do to get better at the activities they find most important. For instance, people who care deeply about helping others on their team might benefit from learning how to reduce conflict in a group. A team member who wants to be seen as an expert could benefit from attending cutting-edge trade conferences. A sales rep who loves negotiating with new clients may benefit from learning new negotiation strategies.
If you set a specific goal for learning, it makes the benefits more tangible for your team, and will likely increase their motivation to get started.
Connect Learning With Work Objectives and Life Goals
It's important to communicate to your people how specific learning sessions will help them achieve their work and personal goals. (Even if you've set learning goals, this connection might not be obvious!)
First, make sure that you're using an approach like Management by Objectives to align your people's objectives with the organization's objectives. Set specific learning and development goals that they need to achieve as part of this. This helps to make learning a part of people's regular work, which they can prioritize appropriately.
Also, ask your people about their personal career and life goals, and highlight how learning and development will help them to achieve these, if appropriate.
Highlight Short-Term Benefits
Adult learners often choose to learn because of the immediate impact it will have on their lives.
This is why it's so important that you communicate what the short-term benefits of training are, and explain how those benefits will affect them directly. How will a particular type of learning and development help them right now? What problems will it help them solve? And how will it make their work easier, or more interesting?
Encourage Social and Peer Learning
As part of his Social Learning Theory, psychologist Albert Bandura says that many people prefer to learn from one another through observation, imitation, and modeling.
This is why offering your people opportunities to learn with a mentor or coach can be so valuable. Not only is learning more fun when we're with others, but teaming up with more experienced professionals can have a lifelong impact on people.
Another important benefit of learning with a mentor is that this person-to-person connection gives learners tangible examples of how they can apply a new skill or process. When information is relevant, people are more motivated to keep learning.
It's also useful to allow people to learn as a group, where practical. For example, you could organize short training sessions for your team, or ask people to share what they've learnt on courses in team meetings. This helps people build on one another's ideas, and think about how you could apply the learning in your team.
Everyone needs encouragement and recognition to keep them going.
Make sure that you recognize the improvements your people make as they start to apply their new skills. Even if you can't reward team members with a gift or bonus, you can make them feel special by simply saying "thank you," or by highlighting their achievements in front of the rest of the team.
Set an Example
Team members are less likely to engage with their own learning if you're not focusing on your own learning and development.
So make sure that your people can see that you're actively working on your own learning and development. Highlight your own learning objectives, and share what you've learnt with your people. If they see that you're willing to put effort into personal development, then they will see that this is important for themselves, too.
Deep down, your people know that they need to spend time learning and developing new skills. Even so, it can be a challenge to get them to do this.
Therefore, it's important for you, as a leader, to engage your team in the learning process. Without that engagement, they may not take action to develop new skills.
To get them engaged, identify people's learning styles, and set learning objectives that tie in with their work and personal goals. Also, highlight the short-term benefits of learning, encourage group learning, and highlight people's achievements.
If you're a Learning & Development professional, you can get a regular stream of ideas like these for helping people in your organization realize their potential in the Mind Tools Corporate blog.