Learning at Work

How is your work day going? What have you learned from your job, from your peers? If you aren’t learning at work, how rewarding is your job, really? In addition to working to maintain a satisfactory standard of living, informal learning at work adds to an individual’s work satisfaction.

Various reports hold that informal learning in the workplace accounts for about 90 percent of everything that employees learn. This may be an accurate number if we consider Albert Bandura’s social learning theory positing that we learn through observing others’ behaviours and attitudes as well as the outcomes of those behaviours.  

In his book, Social Learning Theory (1977), Bandura explains that there are four conditions for modelling behaviour. These are: 

  • Attention. Different factors can increase or decrease the amount of attention paid to a particular behaviour. This includes the behaviour’s distinctiveness, its effect on your emotions (positive or negative emotions are more likely to be remembered than a behaviour that did not evoke an emotional response), prevalence and complexity of the behaviour, functional value (e.g., how important is the behaviour to your job?). An individual’s characteristics also affect attention to the behaviour (e.g., sensory capacities, arousal level, perceptual set, past reinforcement, etc.).

  • Retention. This refers to remembering what you observed. This is impacted by symbolic coding, mental images, cognitive organization, symbolic rehearsal, and motor rehearsal (i.e., practicing what we observed).

  • Reproduction. This is about “doing” what we observed. It includes attention to our physical capabilities to reproduce the behaviour as well as feedback mechanisms through our own self-observation of the behaviour. How well are we reproducing the observed behaviour?

  • Motivation. To imitate behaviour, we need to have a good reason to do so. This may include motivators such as history (e.g., perhaps past behaviours did not result in good outcomes, so a new behaviour is desired) or it may involve promised or imagined incentives.

Like many social and cultural theorists, Bandura believed that the world and a person’s behaviour cause each other – we behave based on our environment, but we also create an environment based on our behaviour. Either way, organizations should take heed of the role that informal and social learning have in the workplace and encourage appropriate learning to maximize efficiency and performance. Following are five ways to increase informal learning in the workplace (adapted from: Growth Engineering).  

  1. Mentoring. Coaching and mentoring help improve training and learning. Knowledge sharing is also a great way to retain knowledge in the workplace and prepare for succession.

  2. Sharing. Social learning flourishes when people get into the habit of sharing their knowledge. Having a center of learning available on the corporate intranet or some other internal forum will go a long way to help employees collaborate and boost their learning.

  3. Experts. Provide expert resources for employees – knowing who to turn to when you have a question will go a long way to helping employees learn from each other.

  4. Rewards. Some companies reward an employee’s hard work with accolades such as “Employee of the Month” or “Top Contributor,” etc. This makes learning more fun. Another way to make learning fun is through gamification – who doesn’t love a good game of Scrabble for Business?

  5. Mandatory Learning. Ensuring that employees complete one level of learning before they can advance to the next level is a good way to ensure that they are reading the corporate handbook (so to speak!). This can be done readily through an online learning platform. This ensures that collaboration and social learning become part of the employees’ learning journey.

Would you like to know how you can learn better from work? Check out the Learning Innovations Laboratory report about the “three stances that make a difference” at work.

Changing Behaviour by Changing Situations

You’ve probably heard it before: “He’s so stubborn.” “She won’t listen.” “They just don’t seem to get how this new product will help them with their work.” “They’re so negative.” When dealing with those who resist change, this innuendo is familiar. 

But it may surprise you to learn that people are not always the problem when there is resistance to change. In fact, more frequently, the situation, not the person, is the common cause.

In their book Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain this phenomenon succinctly. A study about eating habits included free popcorn to moviegoers. Either large or medium sized buckets were distributed. With portion sizes being intentionally large, individuals could not eat all of the popcorn. In addition, the popcorn was stale – popped five days ago.

The researchers hypothesized that people with bigger buckets would eat more popcorn. Their hypothesis was correct. The bigger eaters were those with the bigger buckets. In fact, they ate 53 percent more!

Viewing the data without knowing the difference in bucket sizes, you might easily conclude that 53 percent of moviegoers eat a lot of popcorn. Or that popcorn intake is 53 percent higher at movie theatres than other venues, and so on. You may even start thinking about ways to motivate these gluttons to change to healthier ways of eating. 

Notice that as we jump to conclusions, we immediately think about how to change the person or the person’s behaviour. And we don’t usually delve into the situation to understand what caused the behaviour in the first place.  

In this experiment, we know that the bucket size contributed to the amount of popcorn eaten. Therefore, change the situation and you change the behaviour: Change the bucket size and people will eat less popcorn. How easy is that? 

When one changes the situation, there is no need to act on the individual, to motivate or cajole them into changing their behaviour. The new situation allows the individual to change their behaviour without, perhaps, even knowing that they’ve changed. 

Next time you face resistance to change, look at the environment. What situation can you change to positively affect a desired outcome? The solution may be as easy as changing bucket sizes.

The Good and Bad of Habits

Habits allow us to not “think” about what we are doing, they’re an automatic response to stimuli. They can be useful when we are engaged in rote or mundane activities like the way we get up in the morning, the way we shower, or the way we clean the house. Because we don’t have to think about these activities, we can do them quickly and free our mind to think about other things such as planning our day.

While habits can help speed up some activities, they can also inhibit us from being successful. In fact, if you examine the results of your life and if you’re honest with yourself, you can quickly attribute your results to your habits. For instance, if you choose to procrastinate, if you consistently neglect to deliver on promises, if you handle work more than once (i.e., keep shuffling your “to-do’s” to the back of the pile consistently), if you save opened email in your inbox; then all of these habits lead you to experience a more stressful life. And with repetition of bad habits, stress compounds to  create even more stress.

Research shows that up to 90% of our behaviour is based in habit; but research also shows that habits can be modified in as little as 12 weeks. While the reasons why we engage in self-defeating habits can be as varied as the individuals themselves, there are ways to get on the track to success. Here are the steps you can take to eliminate your bad habits:

  1. Identify your negative habits. Write them down and have a good look at them.
  2. Select one habit that you wish to improve. (Yes, only one!).
  3. Identify behaviours that will replace the one habit you selected.
  4. Start practicing the new behavior(s) every day and keep practicing it for at least three months until it becomes habit. To help with this, use reminders–perhaps by placing post-it notes in locations you can’t miss, using pop-up reminders/alarms in your email calendar, or engaging others to assist you (e.g., coaching, telephone or other reminders, etc.).
  5. Commit to a “no exceptions” rule to stay on track with your new habit.

The last item, committing to a no exceptions rule is very important. If we decide to waver even slightly, our efforts may not pay off. Imagine if organizations decided to be “flexible” with their policies and procedures and allowed some exceptions, claiming that 99.9% is good enough. This would mean that your municipality would be okay with providing one hour of unsafe drinking water per month or two unsafe landings at major airports each day are acceptable or it’s okay for doctors around the country to drop 50 newborn babies at birth every day–I’m sure you’ll agree that none of these scenarios is acceptable.

If you replace one bad habit with a new behavior every three months, you will acquire four new positive habits each year. This translates to at least four steps closer to a more successful life–whatever success may look like for you.