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Training to Enable Personal Responsibility

The following is an excerpt from Mindspace’s upcoming ebook, The Innovator’s Learning and Development Checklist: How to Create a Culture of Learning, a guide to creating more effective and memorable learning experiences to cultivate a company culture of learning.

Training to Enable Personal Responsibility

Imagine a high school history teacher presents his or her class with a list of facts about the signers of the Declaration of Independence, telling the students to memorize the information for their next test. Across the hall is another class where the teacher asks students to find a subject about the American Revolution that interests them and use it to teach the rest of the class.

In the first class, kids memorize the list. Some of them pass the test. Some of them fail. No one remembers the information a month later. In the second class, a student who loves music asks the band teacher about popular music of the time and composes an original, period-appropriate song about our founding fathers. Another student gets geeked out by genealogy and traces the ancestry of each signer. Chances are, those kids ace their test. And more importantly, they share their knowledge with each other, gaining a deeper understanding of the subject matter, which they’ll remember for years to come.

When students are given responsibility for their own education, rather than being forced to learn straight from a textbook, they become empowered and are more likely to take responsibility for their own success. Adults aren’t any different.

We all want to be in charge, and we learn better when we feel like we have some control over the learning process. Unfortunately, the idea of putting employees in charge of their own learning is still a hard thing for many L&D professionals to embrace (and even harder for them to sell to their bosses). Fortunately, it doesn’t mean you have to uproot your entire learning program.

Instead, you can build on the programs you already have and include opportunities for employees to take charge of their individual learning process. When you teach an employee to take responsibility for their education, they will learn the material they need to do their job and continue learning to do their job even better.

Stop Teaching (Everything)

Don’t try to teach employees every aspect of their job. When you do, it’s easier for them to feel like a failure if they forget something. Instead, focus on making that knowledge available in a format that employees can easily seek out themselves, when they need it.

Employees learn best on the job, where they can see the need and the application in action. Making mistakes is all part of that process—because mistakes helps us appreciate the importance of fully understanding our task. Even in jobs that can’t afford mistakes, extended training sessions that give employees the chance to mess up safely are critical.

Having a library of resources at their fingertips will make it easier for employees to confidently take chances and admit when they don’t know the answers and need to seek assistance. This could be a collection of job aids, step-by-step guides, or links to useful online resources—preferably all three.

Ask for Feedback – And Act on It

Once you’ve created a resource library, consider it a living repository. Chances are there’s a better way to do everything in the repository. Encourage your employees to offer feedback and make suggestions to improve it on a regular basis. When you update a procedure, reach out to the individual who made the suggestion and let them know that they have influenced the company policy. Commend them at your next team or company meeting, or add a note in your newsletter.

Some companies even have reward systems in place, which encourage employees to continuously evaluate their processes and look for faster, more efficient, or innovative approaches. According to author and entrepreneur, Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D., encouraging employee feedback can improve a business’s efficiency while giving employees a greater sense of ownership. It’s their job, so let them be responsible for making their own improvements.

Share the Big Picture

Why? It’s the first question everyone learns to ask. It’s also the question we keep asking, every day. Why am I doing this? Why does it matter?

Too many employees have little understanding of how their work fits with what everyone else is doing. Consequently, there’s little incentive to improve upon what is expected. Rather than teaching employees to do a single job, the L&D team should focus on teaching how all roles work together, how departments interact, and how the successes of one area contribute to successes elsewhere. Doing so encourages employees to take initiative and be problem solvers.

As employees see the impact they have on production, they develop a greater sense of responsibility for the overall process and feel empowered to evaluate and improve it. Likewise, when they understand how other departments fit into the process, they are more comfortable reaching out with questions or seeking opportunities for improved collaboration.

Start Conversations

Having knowledge worth sharing makes employees feel important and confident in their skills to perform their job. It also places a big responsibility on employees. If they provide bad information, no one will come to them again. But if the employee is able to offer a keen insight, it’ll encourage more conversation and idea sharing among employees.

L&D teams can use this to their advantage by providing outlets for employees to share their learnings. Setting up a social sharing portal, tapping team members to present on what they’re learning, or setting up a peer mentoring program will foster an environment where employees are encouraged to learn and share their knowledge. According to a Gartner study, mentoring programs have the added benefits of increasing job performance and retention rates for both the mentor and mentee.

It’s important not to limit these conversations to specific departments or job responsibilities. Instead, encourage employees to reach out to departments that interest them and spark cross-discipline conversations.

Reward Personal Development as Much as Professional Development

Every teacher knows teaching the required coursework is only half their job. The rest of their time is spent teaching habits that will make students better. To accomplish this, teachers reward positive behaviors, like being nice to others, volunteering and following directions. This encourages behaviors that contribute to continued learning.

Employees aren’t much different. It’s why they strive to be the best at what we do—and it’s why companies give rewards to their top performers. The problem is, we tend to only reward accomplishments that directly relate to an employee’s role or company sales. While great to acknowledge excellent performance, this does not inspire employees to search for new ideas or innovations. To do that, we need to start rewarding good habits again.

Rewards don’t have to be big. Simply acknowledging someone in a meeting or a newsletter is often enough to encourage others. In addition to the standard work-related praise, look for opportunities to recognize employees who:

  • Take advantage of internal learning opportunities

  • Take classes outside of work

  • Collaborate with other departments

  • Bring new ideas to their teams

  • Look outside their job description

  • Provide honest feedback

The key is to make sure the acknowledgement is genuine. If you have a standard weekly praise session, it loses its effectiveness. But if you wait until there are actions truly worth recognizing, it will inspire the behaviors of other employees.

Building a culture of learning doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a team effort from all levels of a business. It requires a company to build a variety of access points to knowledge. And most importantly, it requires encouragement that leads to employees embracing a new learning culture.


Edited by Josh Gordon, Senior Copywriter and Content Strategist at Mindspace

Art by Kristina Wood, Creative Director at Mindspace

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