In an economy filled with rapidly changing technology, continuous learning is vital for both organizations and their employees. It has to be — according to Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, the half life of a skill is five years.
Employees have to keep on top of their learning to stay relevant, and employers’ traditional centralized methods of training (corporate universities, for example), just cannot keep up. It makes sense that, according to Deloitte, 83 percent of companies are shifting to “flexible, open career models that offer enriching assignments, projects, and experiences rather than a static career progression.” Employees can skill up however they need to (becoming more valuable to their current employer and more marketable if they’re looking for another job) and companies benefit from an agile, self-trained workforce.
Sounds like a win-win, right? Everyone should be happy.
Well, not completely. To paraphrase the famous quote: you can please some of your employees all of the time, and all of your employees some of the time, but you can’t please all of your employees all of the time.
No matter what change a company makes, there are always going to be some employees who resist it. That is true of continuous learning as well.
Why employees resist continuous learning
Employee resistance to continuous learning might seem ironic; creating a culture of continuous learning is supposed to make change easier for organizations and individual employees, and it’s supposed to boost employee engagement.
Here’s the thing, though: the implementation of continuous learning is itself a big cultural shift and those sorts of big changes within an organization are often met with resistance from employees.
Such resistance might seem like something a manager must overcome, but according to Rossabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School, it’s more effective to understand where the resistance is coming from. In most cases, employees resist change out of fear. Rare, however, is the employee that will come out and say they fear the implementation of continuous learning. Mostly this resistance will take the form of complaints, resentment, foot-dragging, or a series of excuses, but most of that behavior is rooted in anxiety.
If they’re very used to learning in a certain way, employees may fear a loss of control over some aspect of their training. Or they may be afraid the company is outsourcing the responsibility of training to them. A continuous learning initiative may have been sprung on them suddenly, or hasn’t been explained clearly and the staff may/ feel like they’re stumbling into it with no preparation. They may be afraid that they won’t be able to handle the change well, or even that something about it it will affect their social standing at work.
If you’re a manager who is gung-ho about continuous learning at work, some of these fears might seem silly and easily arguable to you. But rather than delivering a lecture on the merits of continuous learning to any employee who doesn’t seem thrilled with the idea of continuous learning, try to get to the bottom of their concerns first, and then respond to those concerns with empathy.
Getting everyone on board with continuous improvement
There are several things managers can do to bring reluctant learners into the continuous learning fold. Most of these tactics involve considering your team members’ feelings and worries, and making them comfortable with the culture shift continuous learning entails.
- Have a plan for introducing continuous learning to your team. The best way to deal with resistance is minimize it from the get-go. Before you expect your team to start learning on their own, explain continuous learning to them and give them a timeline for when and how they will be expected to learn on their own. This introduction should include a clear explanation of what continuous improvement is, and what it is not. They should also know what will be expected of them and what supports will be in place for them. Let them know, for example, that continuous learning is designed to give them more control over their development, not less.
- Give them time and resources to learn. No, employees will not have to study on their own time. Yes, they have a say in what they’re learning. No, they shouldn’t have to pay for their own learning. Be clear about how the team will be supported. If your company has invested in a library of learning content for them, point them towards it. Consider setting aside time during the workday for learning.
- Check in with learners. Your employees should not be completely free to learn whatever and however they want on company time. Check in with them to ensure they’re learning what they need to be learning to improve their skills and their job performance. This can be as simple as asking an employee what they learned this week. According to CEB (now Gartner), learners with no guidance at all tend to waste both time and money; spending about 11 percent of their time on unproductive learning which costs the average organization more than $134.5 million a year in employee productivity. So, trust your employees to know what they need to learn, but don’t give them free rein.
- Face the "problem employee" head on. Every manager dreads the problem employee. The one on the team who dislikes their job, rankles at any change, undermines new initiatives to their co-workers, and sometimes even sabotages them. Those employees are considered “actively disengaged” by Gallup, and according to Gallup’s most recent State of the American Workplace report, they make up 16 percent of the workforce, costing the United States between $483 billion to $605 billion each year in lost productivity. If you’ve got one of these employees on your team, you’re probably already aware of it, and dealing with them in any capacity may stress you out. The level of rancor these employees harbor towards their employer is considerable — normally it’s the result of not having been treated well by the company they work for. Sitting down with them and talking about their needs as an employee is a good first step, especially since actively disengaged employees tend to be job hunting, and may need to boost their skills. Have a frank discussion with them about that, and make a plan for them to learn based on what they’re doing at work now, and what they’d like to do in the future. (However, be aware that if the employee is very angry or distrustful of the company, you might not be able to get through to them.)
- Offer guidance to reluctant learners. Access to learning and development is considered a perk by most employees, and many — especially millennials — love the idea of continuous learning (in fact, your employees may already be doing their own learning on the side.) That said, other employees have been consuming whatever learning was served to them for years, via in-person trainings, e-learning, and corporate universities. They may be less motivated employees. Or they may be set in their ways. For a variety of reasons, continuous learning can be intimidating for these employees. They may not know where to start with their learning, or they might be embarrassed to admit to not having skills that other employees have. Some older employees, for example, may not be comfortable with newer technology. Sit down with your employees and talk to them about the gaps in their skills, their goals, and what they need to learn to achieve those goals. Listen to their concerns. Then make a plan with them to help them get started. Chance are, once they get started, they’ll embrace the opportunity to direct their own development.