According to a recent global survey of business executives by FutureStep, 43% of businesses identified learning agility as their top desired attribute for new hires. Clearly, many companies are expecting employees to learn on the job. And as Erika Anderson suggests in her book Be Bad First, the ability to learn constantly and quickly may be the key competitive advantage in a fast-evolving marketplace.
But it’s not always easy to entice employees out of their comfort zones. As a leader, you have to actively encourage them to get curious and support their efforts to develop new skills. Here are a few ways to get started.
Shift the mindset.
Some people see themselves as “old dogs” who are constitutionally incapable of learning “new tricks.” Researcher Carol Dweck would say these folks have a “fixed” mindset. They believe you either have talent for a skill or you don’t and they’ll just never learn how to do some things. Dweck suggests helping people shift to a “growth mindset, in which they believe they can develop new abilities with practice and support.
If people believe they can learn, they’re more open to development opportunities. Keith Heggart, writing for the Australian Association for Research in Education, lists several ways leadership can help employees shift closer to a growth mindset and embrace learning:
- Acknowledge and accept mistakes as part of learning.
- Encourage new approaches.
- Set aside time for employees to reflect on their everyday experiences and learn from them.
- Model the growth mindset yourself.
Set learning goals.
Many companies set performance goals for employees, such as sales targets, units completed, or budget management. While performance goals are important, consider adding learning goals as well, such as having a team debrief after each project to determine what could be done better next time, spending a set amount of time a week practicing a new skill, or cross-training with colleagues.
Adding learning goals reminds employees that developing their talents is just as important to the company as great performance. After all, great performance comes from getting better as individuals and as a team.
And make them specific.
Just as performance goals need to be very specific, so do learning goals. For example, rather than setting a vague objective like “become a better public speaker,” focus on a clear target, such as “during my next presentation, practice making good eye contact with the audience.”
These goals, like performance goals, have to be meaningful to each employee. In an article for Entrepreneur Magazine, Greg Stahl, VP of Marketing at Varsity Tutors, writes,
“I strongly believe that many professional development opportunities are too general to be of much help to anyone — the very nature of a classroom or a corporate retreat means speaking to a group with varying levels of subject knowledge, rather than the individual. People can quickly become uninspired when they’re being taught something they already know and don’t actually need help with. Detailed, team-specific professional development, while more time-intensive, is generally far more effective.”
You can even encourage employees to set their own relevant learning goals, such as writing more succinct emails or finding new ways to help customers feel more welcome.
If you manage a team, start coaching them regularly. If you manage other managers, make coaching one of their performance metrics. Researchers Eva Kyndt, Liezelot Janssens, Kelly Smet, and Patrick Onghena at the University of Leuven found that employees in coaching programs were more likely to reach their competency goals.
Coaching programs are pretty easy to set up, and managers don’t have to be perfect coaches in order to see good results. They simply have to remember that coaching is about listening and guiding, not offering solutions and directives. Peers can even coach each other.
Give your team the tools for accountability.
Ultimately, employees have to take charge of their own learning. They have to be accountable for their progress. But before you can ask them to be accountable, you need to provide the necessary freedom and support.
Tom Fehlman, author of Low Hanging Fruit and Highly Placed Vegetables, observes that in order to hold someone accountable, you have to make sure they know what they’re supposed to do, know how to do it, have the ability to do it (including time and resources), and receive feedback on their progress.
And let them choose the path.
And when you let employees take responsibility, it motivates them to learn more because it gives them autonomy over the process. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, lists autonomy as one of the main ingredients in motivation. We’re more excited about learning when we have control over how it’s done.
Thus, if you want to encourage employees to forge their learning paths, you need to provide resources, guidance and feedback while letting them have some control over their learning activities. This seems like a lot of work for managers, but Roz Bahrami, writing for Training Industry, points out that modern technology, especially mobile apps, can help give employees control over their learning while keeping managers in the loop with their progress.
Make it a priority.
Most importantly, if you want employees to spend more time learning on the job, you need to make it a priority and communicate that goal over and over, through every channel you have, and through your own actions.
As your team starts to follow your lead, go beyond classrooms and training videos to find the growth opportunities in everyday activities. It will take some time, but with practice, your team will literally get a little better at their jobs every day.
At Pract.us, we’re dedicated to helping you create learning organizations that perform a little better every day. Learn more.