In his 2010 autobiography Life, Keith Richards describes the moment he became disengaged from school as a child. “Technical drawing, physics, mathematics, a yawn, because it doesn’t matter how much they try to teach me algebra, I just don’t get it, and I don’t see why I should,” he wrote. “I would learn it, I could learn it, but there’s something inside of me saying this is going to be no help to you, and if you do want to learn it, you’ll learn it by yourself.”
Though he may have been reasoning his way to his eventual fate as a millionaire guitarist in the Rolling Stones, Richards hits on a point chief learning officers must grapple with: learner motivation and how to best facilitate it. To truly reach learners, organizations need to first communicate to learners why what’s being taught is important and then get them to want to learn it for their own benefit — in other words, motivate them.
Kevin Stephens, a vice president at performance-improvement consultancy Excellence In Motivation, spoke of how motivation and learning have to co-exist. “Motivation without learning is not very effective,” Stephens said. “Motivation without learning; you end up with energized incompetence. And similarly, learning without motivation you end up with inert brainpower — a stagnant brain swamp instead of a brainstorm.”
But what if learners are not motivated to even participate in corporate learning programs in the first place? Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, considered this. “First, I wonder if employees have much discretion over what they learn, how they learn it and when they learn it. If the programs are one-size-fits-all, as many are, that can thwart autonomy and lead to disengagement,” Pink said. “Second, one weakness of some programs is that they’re all trees and little forest. That is, they concentrate on the minutiae of how to do something, but ignore the reasons why learning it is important. It’s all content and not context.”
An important distinction to make in considering motivation, particularly as it relates to learning, is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, a central consideration of Pink’s book Drive. It argues that motivation by extrinsic factors, such as monetary rewards, is outmoded, and motivation today should be based on intrinsic properties, such as a desire for self-development.
Stephens, meanwhile, has written a white paper published by the Incentive Marketing Association titled “You Say Intrinsic, We Say Extrinsic … Should We Just Call the Whole Thing Off?” in which he analyzes Drive. He argues that intrinsic and extrinsic motivators aren’t necessarily exclusive; they can co-exist or even blend.
“The focus should be rather than put it into this dichotomous framework, talk about what kind of intrinsic motivations are compatible with organizational goals,” he said. “The goal is to align their intrinsic interests with the organizational goals, and you can do that through extrinsic rewards.”
To do so, Stephens said, organizations need to get learners to identify what they’re being asked to learn and why. “Rather than go, ‘Oh, they want me to do this and if I do it they’ll pay me for it,’ if you can get to the part where they’re going, ‘I understand what they’re saying here and I identify with it and want to do it, and hey, bonus, I’m even being rewarded for it,’ that’s internalized, extrinsic motivation.”
Stephens was quick to point out that learning initiatives are likely to fail without some amount of intrinsic motivation. “I don’t think that you can have an effective learning initiative that is entirely forced upon an individual unless you can appeal to their intrinsic interests,” he said. “That’s going to be a losing proposition. But I do think that if there’s already intrinsic interests that extrinsic rewards are perfectly appropriate. People love to get reinforcement or material, extrinsic rewards for completing tests of their knowledge.”
Pink allows there is a gray area between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. “Truth be told, there’s nuance here,” he said. “The kinds of rewards that some folks in [Stephens’] group advocate are perfectly fine and consistent with the science. When if-then rewards are used as a form of control, the science shows they’re just not very effective. But when rewards are used as form of feedback or information on how someone is doing, or as a form of fairness, they can be very useful.”
The best practice, Pink said, is for organizations overall to provide a context in which self-motivation-to-learn flourishes. “One [of] the scholars I interviewed for Drive said it best. He said that we have to get past this idea that motivation is something that one person does to another and instead realize that it’s something people do for themselves,” Pink said. “So the best approach is to pay people well and then provide a broader environment of autonomy, mastery and purpose. Ideally, an employee would be motivated to learn both because it sharpens her abilities and helps the company.”
But to get there, learners have to know how what they learn will help the company. Here, Stephens said, learning departments play a key role. “The proper role [for learning] would be to educate individuals [on] what the goals of the organization are and how their desired behaviors will help them achieve not only organizational goals but their own personal goals.”
Daniel Margolis is managing editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at dmargolis@CLOmedia.com.Filed under: Learning Delivery