Teacher smiling in front of clapping class

How to get your employees enthusiastic about learning

The principles of motivation explored

4 minute read
Teacher smiling in front of clapping class

When employees lack enthusiasm for learning, it can be challenging for a business to achieve the training goals required for success.

The result may be a poor work environment, in which conflict over work methods and outcomes start to surface.

Demotivated staff often hinder the goodwill of others who are willing to learn, causing a slowdown in the pace of work and ultimately output. It can even lead to unsafe work practices occurring.

So, what motivates people to learn?

AIM WA Head of Product Design Graeme Robb FAIM said most of us were motivated to learn when we could see an outcome that we value, as demonstrated by the Expectancy-Value Theory of motivation, first developed by US psychologist John William Atkinson in the 1950s and 60s.

The model suggests motivation can be determined by two factors: ‘expectancy’ – whether we expect to succeed at a task and ‘value’ – how much we value the task.

Motivation increases when we feel challenged, but capable of achieving results. The value relates to how important we deem the task to be.

This value is either ‘intrinsic’ and we are doing something for the inherent satisfaction it brings, or ‘extrinsic’ when we are motivated by external rewards or encouragement for completing something. The rewards we receive are usually classified as financial or non-financial.

Why is it important for managers to motivate employees to learn?

Mr Robb said a ResumeLab survey of US workers in 2020 found 54 per cent would leave their job due to a lack of professional development opportunities, so it was important for managers to keep team members’ motivation up.

“A conscious commitment to staff learning that is properly researched and planned, effectively communicated and well-resourced can help a team increase their level of commitment, productivity and energy, armed with new knowledge or a skill,” he said.

Boosting employees’ motivation to learn

Employees lack the motivation to learn when they cannot see any extrinsic or intrinsic factors that will benefit them.

Or they only see a negative extrinsic factor as the outcome – such as a punishment instead of a reward. Perhaps they have had previous learning experiences that were unpleasant, inappropriate, or unhelpful.

Mr Robb said a widely held view was that organisations and their leaders focused on providing the extrinsic motivators, such as a financial reward, and pay less attention to, or completely overlook, the intrinsic motivators.

Motivation theorists discuss three key elements of intrinsic motivation. To bring about effective change, it is necessary to spend time helping staff find what motivates them in these areas:

1. Autonomy – choice and control

2. Mastery – competence and challenge

3. Connection - purpose and relationships

Questions managers can ask employees regarding learning opportunities could include:

Autonomy – if you were to learn X, how would it help you to increase your feeling of having more choice and not be as controlled by others?

Mastery – if you were to learn more about Y, how much more competent would you feel in your abilities, especially in situations that were challenging but not impossible?

Connection – if you want to learn more about Z, you’ll need to know the ‘why’ about it – its purpose – and how it fits into your goals. Would that help?

According to Daniel Pink in his book ‘Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, purpose rather than pure profit is increasingly at the heart of organisations as a guiding principle.

It has value to employees, particularly younger generations entering the workforce. Organisations can increase willingness to learn by demonstrating how an employee’s skills and knowledge add a valued contribution towards the core purpose.

“Sustained behavioural change comes from helping someone to identify and then work on the relevant extrinsic and intrinsic motivating factors in a way that is most effective for that individual.”

“There is no one right answer,” Mr Robb said.

The environment plays a big part

Mr Robb said one of the factors that could make or break a learner’s motivation was the environment, making it a crucial component.

Questions to consider when providing learning opportunities for employees include whether they feel the environment is supportive and psychologically safe. Do they see it as a positive and inclusive space? Is the learning engaging and does it fit their preferred style of learning?

“The more of these a learner can say ‘yes’ to, the more likely they are going to feel positive about the learning environment,” Mr Robb said.

How to minimise distractions when learning

For people struggling to manage distractions or stay focused when learning, Mr Robb suggested setting up a separate study space with minimal visual distractions and noise, and no unnecessary items such as electronic devices.

“Other strategies include encouraging timed breaks and for learners to reduce internal recurring thoughts by writing them on a post-it note to be addressed later,” he said.

“Also, brain training activities help manage busy minds.”

The importance of a growth mindset

Mr Robb said a growth mindset was imperative, explaining its link to the intrinsic motivators.

“For example, to help in autonomy, learners can adopt a growth mindset and take a minute to reflect on what they’re learning each day, to take control of their life,” he said.

“To help in mastery, a growth mindset allows challenges to be viewed as opportunities to grow. And to help in connection, a growth mindset builds relationships, being open to hearing suggestions.

“A growth mindset can help learners to feel empowered, committed and motivated.”