Why Learners Fail To Learn (and How You Can Help Them Succeed)

When actress Natalie Portman took a break from Hollywood to attend Harvard, she was asked whether it was because she loved studying. She responded: “I don’t love studying. I hate studying. I like learning. Learning is beautiful.”

Natalie’s not alone. Most people love the feeling of learning something new. Even more appreciate the rewards of learning, like improved career prospects. But it takes considerable work to get to those rewards. That’s just one of the reasons why some fear (and even hate) studying – especially in the workplace.

The Top Barriers to Learning in the Workplace

What is it that makes it so hard for your employees/ learners to acquire new skills and actually learn at work? Let’s take a closer look at some of the reasons why corporate learners fail to learn.

  1. Resistance to change
  2. Cheap and nasty short-term solutions
  3. Overwhelming complexity
  4. A weak learning culture
  5. Poor leadership skills

Now, let’s look at them one by one.

1. Resistance to change

No one likes having the rug pulled out from under them. Unfortunately, corporate learners often feel this way when they’re told that their methods and goals need to change, and they need to learn a new way of doing things.

Resistance to change is especially common among more senior employees, who often see change as something threatening. But senior employees’ buy-in is vital to training so that more junior employees also become invested. Without the investment of both groups, resistance can be one of the more insidious barriers to training in the workplace.

So, how do you get out of this sticky situation? Firstly, understand that resistance arises from a lack of knowledge. Often employees feel comfortable in their jobs and believe that new processes, technologies or tasks will change that. Show them how wrong they are by running awareness campaigns that educate learners about upcoming learning.

These campaigns should highlight the benefits that learning will bring to the organization, teams, and even the individual employee. For example, a new course might help your employees manage their time better at work so that they clock less overtime. And training on new technology might help your employees to reach their targets and earn more commission. These campaigns can incorporate posters, team emails, and talks from a motivational speaker or industry leader.

Then, run a survey among employees that focuses on why they are excited about the learning to come. Use their feedback to improve campaign efforts, and better understand their personal goals.

Finally, make time to include specific learning goals in each employee’s quarterly personal development plan. Ensure that the connection between their goals and training is clear. Giving learning goals priority shows that the organization is ready to support employees with the skills they need during change.

2. Cheap and nasty short-term solutions

People (and organizations) are prone to reactive, rather than proactive, behavior. Something inexplicable happens, and we’re inclined to panic and reach for the fastest available solution.

Temporary solutions and a lack of long-term vision quickly become barriers to learning in the workplace. For example, if an organization discovers that the sales team is only hitting 40% of their sales targets, they’d be right to panic. They might decide to rectify the obvious skills gap by urgently slapping together a course that aims to improve negotiation abilities.

Fair enough, right? Except this course doesn’t have the time or budget it needs. It’s sloppily put together, links are faulty, and the content is dry and hard to follow. The result? Wasted time, a negligible improvement in sales figures, and a frustrated salesforce.

Fortunately, it is possible to respond to problems with effective training. You just need to be prepared. Start by looking closely at your quarterly goals across the organization. Identify the targets that would affect organizational productivity and profitability most. Propose simple training solutions for each of these goals. These solutions should proactively help employees to reach their targets.

3. Overwhelming complexity

Sometimes the content or skills that employees need to learn are, in themselves, barriers to training in the workplace. Complex topics or detailed processes can derail learners’ progress – fast. Worse still, employees quickly lose motivation when learning goals seem unattainable.

Of course, there are times when the organization requires employees to grasp complicated concepts. So, what’s there to do?

Refine your approach to training design. Use a tool like Bloom’s revised taxonomy to create clear learning outcomes that plot learners’ progress from simple to more difficult knowledge and skills. Next, unpick complex concepts and processes to identify natural break-points.

Now, how can you split up the training content? You can significantly reduce the impact of complexity on the learning experience by breaking concepts and processes into manageable chunks.

Use a variety of content formats to provide employees with different methods to absorb content. Some employees’ learning preferences will favor written resources, while others will respond better to videos or infographics.

Whatever you do, take a critical look at your content plans before creating anything. Ask yourself if the training content will provide a simple, convenient learning experience. If the training content itself is overcomplicated, it might add to barriers to learning in the workplace, not reduce them.

4. A weak learning culture

While the way that learners, well, learn is important, it’s equally essential that they learn in a supportive environment. A learning culture means that the organization’s values support learning in a meaningful way. The frustration of trying to improve skills and knowledge without support from the organization can add significantly to barriers to learning in the workplace.

Boost your learning culture by making regular learning opportunities (both compulsory and optional) available to employees. The organization can also emphasize learning in its communication about company values and organizational goals.

Recognition is a powerful motivational tool. Publicly praise and reward both team success and individual success when employees reach learning milestones.

Finally, a strong learning culture is one where every effort is made to offer accessible learning. In a poor learning culture, employees often complain that they don’t have time to complete their training. Prioritize mobile solutions to save time and increase the convenience of learning. This way, employees can see that their time is valued, and their development is supported.

5. Poor leadership skills

Mitigating any of the previously listed barriers to training and development in the workplace requires the support of excellent managers.

Sadly, managers don’t always receive sufficient training on how to support and motivate their staff (aka leadership training). Too often, managers’ targets are focused exclusively on business growth and project goals. Employees need to experience guidance and encouragement from their direct managers to flourish and improve performance.

One way that poorly trained managers create barriers to organizational learning is by using a blame-focused approach. When mistakes happen, they focus only on who is responsible, and what they did wrong. Instead, they should focus on the opportunity to learn from mistakes. Employees are also more likely to innovate if they know that their manager values growth and learning.

Managing team development is so much easier when managers are able to win their team over to new ideas. When managers don’t have these skills, their team easily loses vision of where the organization is heading.

The solution to these problems is simple: provide managers with regular training in mentorship, performance management and people development. Training should give special focus to motivational tactics, professional goal setting, and understanding the challenges of adult learning. If the organization values managers’ learning, managers will value the same for their reports.

Remove Barriers and Watch Learners Soar

Natalie Portman was right. Learning is beautiful. But without recognizing the hurdles that trip learners up, they’ll never get to the beauty.

By following the tips we’ve outlined you can overcome some of the most common and easily-fixable reasons why learners fail to learn. And improve learner retention and morale at the same time.

You’re up. What are some obstacles to learning you’ve observed in your training?

And what have you done to boost your and your learners’ odds in the battle against these learning barriers?

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