Each year another study is published confirming something we already know too well: the actions a manager takes to reinforce learning trump the content, design, delivery and every other dimension of the intervention.
So, given the power of their contributions to the success of learning, why don't managers do a better job of reinforcing and optimizing learning and the significant financial investment organizations make in training each year?
It's not that they're lazy or don't care. The breakdown boils down to two fundamental challenges:
- They don't know how, and/or
- They don't have the time for the lengthy, over-engineered processes that frequently accompany organizational training.
The tools managers need to reinforce learning
What managers need are simple, streamlined and flexible strategies that operate at the speed of business. What they need is a menu of five-minute actions they can take to optimize learning, ideally in conjunction with the work and interactions that already consume their very full days.
So here a few suggestions to get leaders reinforcing learning:
Facilitate a focus
Employees who come into training with a plan for what they want to get out of it receive greater value from the experience. A short focusing conversation can turbocharge the effects of any development activity, reinforcing learning. And, it's as simple as asking the employee to review the course overview ahead of time and consider:
- Where can you use what you'll learn in your day-to-day work?
- How might this training improve your effectiveness?
- What two to three goals can you set for yourself and for this learning experience?
Allow full attention
Clear the decks. Ensure that people can really participate in the training - whether that means preserving an interruption-free hour at the employee's desk so they can fully engage in an elearning course or ensuring that he/she won't be pulled out of a live workshop for the "emergency du jour". Negotiate upfront for the coverage that's required and put the onus on the employee to arrange for the appropriate supports.
Given the pressures of the workplace, it's only natural that without some attention, people will naturally "rubber band" back to familiar practices. Engaging in even a five-minute conversation can combat this human (and results-damaging) tendency, optimizing learning. And, all that's required are a couple of curious probes that encourage reflection and the identification of new insights, such as:
- What did you learn?
- What are the one or two big ideas you're walking away with?
- How might putting these ideas into practice contribute to your performance, our department's goals, and our organization's outcomes?
Performance improvement is rarely a straight-line progression toward perfection. After training, people frequently take two steps forward only to then experience one step back. Trying new things can be messy business. So, it's critical for managers to set the expectation that failure is not fatal; rather it's a natural outcome of the process of growth. This can be done quickly. And follow-up conversations that help employees extract learning from their missteps and mistakes can also be short, but powerful drivers of change.
All of the great insights in the world mean little unless employees are inspired to take action. This is another place where leaders can invest a brief amount of time reinforcing learning - and reap disproportionate benefits. The half-life of learning is very short if people don't do something with it. So, carving out five minutes shortly after a training or development opportunity can ensure that employees have a chance to immediately think through how they can begin implementing new skills and information. Conversation starters include:
- Where in your work are there opportunities to put these ideas into practice?
- What could you do today to get started?
- What support do you need from me?
Reinforce with recognition
Catching people using what they've learned in training takes only a minute - but makes an enormous difference. Pointing out results - and even effort that hasn't quite paid off - is motivating. It telegraphs that the manager is watching and supporting the employee's effort. It builds accountability and helps to sustain the energy required for behavior change. A casual comment - one that takes only a few seconds - can inspire persistence, focus and attention.
Leaders reinforcing learning
Given the complexity and pace of change in the workplace, ongoing learning is the best bet for organizations that wish to remain viable and competitive into the future. And time should never be an excuse for sub-optimizing the investments made in training and learning... because, if you've got five minutes, you can do something to get more value from employee development efforts.