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  • Writer's pictureIrina Ketkin

How to build employee learning habits

You’ve probably heard the saying “build it and they would come”, but when we think of real life, it rather rarely happens to be true, doesn’t it? In our own careers as L&D practitioners we’ve created numerous programmes, that we thought were brilliant, useful and practicable and employees would engage in them the minute they were rolled out, only to find ourselves greeted with the sound of crickets.

To put it simply, it’s not enough to introduce great tools and resources, you also need to assist employees in adopting a mindset and habits that would allow them to reap the benefits from all that the organisation has to offer in terms of learning.

But before we dive into the actual tips on how to build employee learning habits, let’s go back a bit and look at how learning works.

What is learning?

Before we can get into learning habits we need to understand what learning is. A google search yields an expected result:

“Learning is the process of acquiring new understanding, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, attitudes, and preferences.”

But there is more to it. To truly understand the learning process, we need to understand how the brain works.

While it is only 3% of our body weight, the brain uses 25% of our oxygen and blood supply. And there is a reason for it. The brain needs a lot of energy to convert data into lessons. Think of it this way. Imagine you are in a dense jungle and you need to get out. This is the first time a human has to go through it and there is a lot of fauna that hinders your journey. As you walk, you use your machete to fight your way through. It is slow and painful. However, you left a path behind you. So now, if you have to go through the same jungle, it is going to be much easier. And every time you walk through, you make the path bigger and there is less and less resistance. This path will become a track, a small road, and ultimately: a highway!

The same thing (more or less) happens in our brain when we are faced with new information. Very simply put, the brain is made up of neurons. When these neurons connect, forming the so-called neural pathways, we learn something new. The stronger the pathway, the easier we can recall the information. For example, the name of our new colleague or the address of the new office. If you repeat both of these enough times, the connection becomes stronger and, therefore, easier to remember.

Going back to learning, we can say that

Learning is the process of creating and sustaining new neural pathways for the purpose of acquiring new understanding, knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, attitudes, and preferences.

Not as sexy a definition, but way more accurate!

What are learning habits

Another Google search defines habits for us:

A routine of behaviour that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously.

Therefore, habits are all routine behaviours we subconsciously repeat for the purpose of building new and enforcing old neuropathways. So what could be considered a learning habit?

  • Proactively finding the best learning opportunities

  • Matching learning opportunities to our learning preferences and styles

  • Being genuinely curious

  • Asking for feedback on our work and learning from it

  • Wanting to master a skill or excel at our job

  • Knowing our optimal learning times

  • Taking a break

What are some habits we missed on our list? Let us know in the comments below.

How to build learning habits

Now that we have a hefty list of learning habits, what can you do as the L&D practitioner in charge? Keep in mind that learning has a lot to do with change – we learn something, we need to apply it and that means replacing the old way of doing things. Not everyone will be comfortable with this. And, as you will see in our tips below, building learning habits requires the involvement of many people, teams and departments. As the saying goes “it takes a village to raise a child”. Translated to our language “It takes an organisation to raise a learner!”.

Here are some of our suggestions on how you can build learning habits:

  • Allow employees to find out and explore their learning preferences. You can do this with self-assessment questionnaires on learning styles or coaching for self-awareness

  • Create different learning opportunities. Have a range of opportunities that fit all tastes – from classroom and online training, to online courses, bite-sized and microlearning, coaching and mentoring, peer reviews, project work and even job shadowing and secondments.

  • Empower people to make decisions themselves. If the learning isn’t applied back on the job, can we truly say that it is effective? And one of the best ways to ensure learners are putting their money where their mouths are is by allowing them to make all the decisions. When leaders become hands-off, employees become hands-on!

  • Encourage challenging the status quo. “Why fix something when it ain’t broke?” A famous saying often used to encourage the status quo. But not changing means standing still. Learners should be encouraged by their managers, L&D, and HR to challenge things, especially when they believe something better can be done instead.

  • Encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing. Humans are social beings and we learn from each other. When people collaborate and share their knowledge freely, they feel more empowered and engaged in the learning process. Not to mention they feel responsible and accountable for their learning.

  • Enforce regular feedback giving. Another great way to learn is through trial and error. But no error will be worth it unless we can learn from it. This is where feedback comes in. And sometimes, without feedback, we may not even realize that we are making a mistake and therefore, are robbed of the opportunity to learn.

  • Inspire active experimentation and learning from mistakes. Feedback is important, but unless we are encouraged to freely experiment and make as many mistakes as possible, then we are not learning. We are just going with the flow. This is where managers need to be heavily involved and act as role models to empower their teams to try new things and learn from their errors.

  • Eliminate unproductive systems and practices. No behavioral habits can be created or sustained unless there are systems, policies and practices in place to support them. A great way to start is to have a closed corporate social media where the exchange of ideas and learning resources can happen freely among employees.

  • Allow people to be in control of their learning. We feel most empowered, engaged, and motivated when we are in control of our destiny. The same is true for learning. If your learners have a wide variety of learning opportunities to choose from, they will make the best decisions for themselves (a little secret – even if they didn’t, they will defend their choice anyways!).

How do you build learning habits in your organization? Share your practices in the comments below.


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