Leaders, Let Your People Learn at Work

classroomResearch tells us that people are more satisfied at work when they are able to do tasks or projects that are interesting and challenging. We know that not all work is inherently interesting, and also that once you have mastered a job it can become boring or less satisfying. In many cases, people don’t just expect interesting work.  Talented employees also want an opportunity to grow their skills, knowledge and abilities – to improve themselves while improving your bottom line.

Google answers this expectation by giving its employees 20 percent of their work time to work on whatever they want. Google is unique, and its business model includes employees staying at the leading edge of technology and hopefully inventing practical and creative products and services.  You may be wondering how you can provide employees with more development and stimulation, especially during times of economic restraint and high work volumes.

Give regular increments of self-development time.

It doesn’t have to be one day a week, but it could be a few hours or a morning a month.  Even small teams can rotate the privilege without overly impacting deliverables and customer service. If someone on the team is totally irreplaceable, that in itself is a risk that should be solved. I have seen Managers hold the front-desk so that a team member can take a course. The first time you implement your self-directed learning periods, ask each employee to research what’s available that would be both of interest to them, and also might be useful to the team/company. 

Promote no cost learning.

If you belong to an industry association, you will often have access to webinars, both scheduled and on-demand. Many webinars are low cost and provide materials to attendees, as well as a taped version.  TED videos are short introductions to fascinating ideas and books.  Many instructor-led videos are available on YouTube. For serious learning at a university or college level, try searching Massively Open Online Courses (see Academic Earth for a sample).  

Implement peer learning

Learning together is another way to build team spirit and shared mindset. Perhaps you can encourage mentoring partnerships to take advantage of the various experience levels in the team. Create a guideline that those who take a webinar or course then share their learning with the rest of the team.  The whole team can choose a book that is relevant to your work, and divvy up the chapters to be read. Each person creates a 4 slide summary of their assigned chapter. Put them all together and have a fun, interactive discussion where you speed-read  the entire book together in a lunch meeting, each person hosting a stimulating conversation about their chapter. When a group learns together they can experience synthesis and breakthrough insights.

Consider all work experience to be learning.  

The best learning happens on-the-job, but it’s not readily available as growth to people without a formal process, and the time, for reflection and capture.  Post- implementation reviews (PIRs) are a standard in many companies that use project management methodology. They consistent of a facilitated discussion where the project experience is reviewed and what worked, and what didn’t, is captured for ongoing improvement. Good reviews ask questions not only about the concrete deliverables, but also about the dynamics around communication and decision-making. As a leader/coach you can have a similar set of questions that you routinely ask your staff to reflect on. Change the tone of one of your one-on-one meetings each month to focus on learning and development. Questions like “What did you learn this month?” can replace status update questions.  A supportive and gentle coach can unpack even the most challenging situations, helping the players to look with curiousity, not shame, at what went wrong.

Just ask more questions.

Neuroscience and brain research is every where these days, with many new nuggets of advice for leaders. Ivey Business Journal published a great article called “Leading Minds instead of Managing Behaviour” (Jacobs, February 2011). The author explains how a manager, who asks questions about how a person is doing, actually opens up the brain for learning. Our traditional way of assessing performance and giving critical feedback, he says, causes people to persist in the behaviours being criticized. If you want your employees to grow and develop, engage them in more supportive coaching conversations. Use questions, not to grill or test, but to examine and explore alternatives.

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