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Agenda Training & Development: Yearning for Learning

How to develop a culture that embraces training.

HR Magazine, March 2002In a perfect world, your employees would flock to training sessions out of a genuine desire to be there. Rather than merely showing up and filling the chairs, they’d arrive willing and eager to learn.

In today’s workplace, however, training programs must clear a few hurdles to get people in the room. Feeling productivity pressures, your employees and their supervisors may view training as wasted time away from the job. Going to training one day means working harder to catch up the next, as they see it.

So how do you motivate your employees to participate in training? First, you must examine a more fundamental question, suggests Robert O. Brinkerhoff, education professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., and co-author with Anne Apking of High Impact Learning (Perseus, 2001). That is: How do you create an environment in which employees value training?

“That’s quite a different approach from saying, ‘How do we motivate people to participate in training?’” Brinkerhoff notes. “One is almost a precondition for the other. If you don’t have a workplace environment where people value training, it’s hard to motivate them to attend in any sustained way. If you do have that sort of culture, then motivation takes care of itself.”

Set the Stage

Before employees can value training, the employer must do so. That connection seems obvious, but, all too often, companies fail to truly value training, even though they say they do, Brinkerhoff contends. Some companies, for instance, view training as one more employee benefit, like parking spaces or a cafeteria. Then training becomes just another overhead expense.

Or, training may be a numbers game in which the training department does whatever it takes to crank up attendance, such as holding prize drawings for participants. Others use threats. “I think one of the worst things I’ve seen companies do is to put compliance on learning—to say, ‘Do this or you’ll get written up,’” says Susan Miller, director of training and development at Famous Footwear in Madison, Wis.

A far better approach is to model the behavior you’re trying to instill, Miller says. If supervisors place themselves in learning situations, chances are, so will their employees. “In our organization, the leaders admit they’re still learning,” she notes.

An organization also demonstrates that it values training by recognizing employees who complete educational programs, says Christine Nemenz, HR development training coordinator at Auburn Career Center in Concord Township, Ohio.

At Southern California Water Company in San Dimas, Calif., the pervasive message to employees is to “keep learning, keep growing,” says Diane Rentfrow, corporate dean of the company’s Employee Development University. The company has built a culture in which employees not only desire to learn but also to teach. So far, 20 percent of employees from throughout the ranks have completed the 40-hour Train-the-Trainer Program. Then they conduct 90 percent of the company’s training. “Employees are always saying, ‘We have so much talent internally. Why aren’t we using it?’” Rentfrow notes.

The Train-the-Trainer Program does just that. Employees learn how to train co-workers in skills used on the job, but training topics need not be job-related. “Employees become certified as facilitators and they may use that here, or in their community or in their personal lives,” Rentfrow points out.

Provide the Right Stuff At the Right Time

Once you establish a pro-learning environment, the next step is to build motivation into the training itself. That starts with making training relevant; employees need to see how it will help them.

“Organizations tend to place training onto people, vs. finding out how people feel about the training topic,” says Rhonda Messinger, partner at Learning Solutions Group in Portage, Mich. Make sure you’re teaching what you need to teach, and that the trainees have bought into it.

Timing is also critical, says Roger Schank, distinguished career professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. There are three major training flaws that kill employee motivation. “One, it’s boring,” says Schank, president of Schank Learning Consultants in Palm Beach, Fla., and author of Designing World-Class E-Learning (McGraw-Hill, 2001). “Second, it’s not obvious why you need what you’re being trained to do. And third, you’re being trained in what you need, but not when you need it.”

When training has clear benefits, employees naturally gravitate toward it. Those benefits should work three ways, says Brinkerhoff. Training should further the employee’s career goals, help the company meet its business goals and enhance the company’s odds for success.

Do Some Sleuthing

Trainers must ask employees key questions about training needs to motivate them to learn. Before Dennis Stevenson, SPHR, develops a training program, he visits the job site to talk to the people he’ll train. “I find out what problems they’re facing that the training is supposed to solve. I just walk around and ask,” says Stevenson, who’s had a 30-year career in adult education and until recently was director of training and education at Raleigh, Schwarz & Powell, an insurance brokerage in Tacoma, Wash.

Through this roving-and-asking process, Stevenson gathers what he needs to fashion on-target training. “When I go back and tell them what the benefits of the training are going to be, I can tie those to the problems they told me about, rather than something I invent,” he says.

You can continue the exploratory questions at the training session itself, advises Messinger. At the outset, ask employees what they expect to get from the training. Sharing expectations gives trainers vital clues about motivating participants to learn, and it helps put trainees at ease.

Just as important as what you’re training is how you’re training. Most adults feel motivated to learn when they’re involved, rather than passively listening, say training experts. “Many people have the idea that training and education are the transmission of knowledge,” Schank says. “That’s fundamentally wrong.” Simulations, stories, discussions, role-plays, problem-solving and games are just a few strategies that foster involvement in learning and thus boost motivation to learn.

Inject Fun

Fun is a great motivator in any human endeavor, training included. It makes people happy to be there and breaks down barriers to learning. Stevenson remembers training he did for dockworkers who were having trouble accepting their new female co-workers. Many of the latter were filing lawsuits and winning big claims, causing the company’s insurance premiums to skyrocket. The company’s solution was to mandate sensitivity training, which it hired Stevenson to conduct. He faced a recalcitrant crowd.

“I introduced myself and told them why I was there, never using the word ‘sensitivity,’” Stevenson recalls. “Then I reached into my pocket and pulled out a mousetrap. I set it and asked if anyone was man enough to stick his finger in the trap. Nobody would do it.” Because he knew how to do it without hurting himself, he stuck his own finger in the trap and then taught the technique to a few volunteers.

Next Stevenson pulled out a rat trap from his pocket and again asked for volunteers. None came forward as they watched the trap snap pencils, sending fragments flying. Finally, he unveiled, to a wide-eyed audience, a man-size trap, four feet long and 30 inches wide.

All through this exercise, he wove in his point: Some traps—and penalties for such misdeeds as speeding—might hurt a little, but you can take it. Other traps—and penalties for such conduct as disrespecting other people—are more dangerous and can break you. He succeeded in triggering a lively discussion and delivering training that stuck.

Creativity and fun go a long way toward sparking interest in training, but “it has to be academically defensible,” Stevenson cautions.

Schank agrees. “Some trainers, knowing their stuff is deadly dull, decide the solution is to walk around in a feather boa,” he says. “They liven it up with irrelevant things to the side. But what does that matter? It misses the issue. They’ll do anything but try to actually make the training good.”

Dianne Molvig is a freelance business writer in Madison, Wis.

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