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Employers need to think differently about L&D if they want more innovative workers

Anne Dranitsaris
hrmagazine.co.uk, 31. January 2013

DranitsarisLearning and development is big business. Even with budget squeezes, about $135 billion is spent training employees in the USA every year, while in the UK, training resources averaging £276 are allocated to every worker. But how many of these billions actually improve the workplace, with skills transferred to everyday jobs?


Organisational leaders are often left frustrated by the apparent ineffectiveness of costly training initiatives. Could this be fixed by thinking more about the needs of the people attending learning sessions? Our research shows that those responsible for staff training typically spend more time selecting what they believe is appropriate workshop content than thinking about the needs of the people attending. When this happens, training and development approaches focus on skills and behaviour instead of what drives behaviour and what employees need and feel during the learning process. The underlying belief seems to be that learning is solely a cognitive activity and not an ongoing process that is greatly influenced by the employee's emotions and personality.

We need an innovative paradigm for training and development, swapping the content-driven model for a whole-person approach. Rather than looking at what is being taught, this considers the employee's personality, emotional needs and learning style. Based on recent breakthroughs in the biology of learning, this approach includes what happens physiologically during learning so programmes can be developed to enhance retention of training content and engage employees emotionally.

A person-centred approach

While content-focused training is required for essential skills, techniques and knowledge, developing people needs a different approach. Personality assessments, emotional intelligence training and behavioural competence models are used with varying degrees of success. Our knowledge about the brain and learning is left out of training and development instead of being put first.

All learning is brain-based. Scientists are now able to see what goes on inside the brain when people are engaged in learning. It is time for us to rethink our training and development strategies. Effective programmes literally change the brain, so we need to take a fresh and innovative look at what is required for this change to occur.

Development programmes created with the whole person in mind allow us to address their needs and take into account the mechanics of their minds. Considering what employees need in order to feel competent, supported and valued enables leaders to better relate to and lead employees - and to better understand their own work-related behaviours and emotions as well.

As consulting firm BlessingWhite noted in its Employee Engagement Report 2011: "Individuals need to know what they want - and what the organisation needs - and then take action to achieve both." The focus should be first on gaining insights into the person, then the organisation.

Getting personal

Employees are people first and employees second, and this remains true in L&D. Training is a personal activity. It stands to reason that a 'people-first' perspective on such activities will allow employees to engage in the experience of development on their own terms and with an eye to how the activities fit their needs and strengths, rather than focusing on what they are expected to learn and do. Training and development become emotional experiences for them that exist not only within the parameters of work skills and knowledge but also as exciting, energising and stimulating experiences that are deeply personal.

With the increasing use of brain-based personality assessments to determine how people learn, companies are becoming better equipped to understand employees' needs, motivations and drives, and to leverage this information for the creation of effective programmes that develop employees for long-term success.

Learning is an emotional experience

Recent advances in the neuroscience of emotions highlight connections between cognitive and emotional functions that could revolutionise the way we learn, particularly with regard to the relationship between learning and emotion and what needs to happen in the brain for learning and behavioural change to take place.

Emotions are the result of interpreting sensory input and thinking. When input is interpreted favourably, positive emotions result, and curiosity and exploration of new things are enhanced. However, when the input is interpreted negatively, our fight or flight responses kick in and employees don't learn. They show up for training sessions but they don't try anything new or think innovatively.

Emotions are what drive our attention and our behaviour in L&D. Emotions affect learning, either enhancing the experience or shutting the process down because of anxiety about experimenting with new behaviours. If they are anxious, embarrassed or otherwise uncomfortable, that impedes the success of even the most skilfully designed training programme.

When people focus on developing themselves and experimenting with new behaviours and skills in a supportive environment, they develop confidence. They use their whole brain, becoming fully engaged in their work. In the absence of such support, employees can easily stay on automatic pilot, not daring to innovate, challenge or venture into unfamiliar territory because they feel insecure and lack confidence. In the supportive atmosphere of understanding each person's needs, strengths, attitudes and behaviours, qualities like self-sufficiency, creativity, initiative and greater responsibility can thrive.

Marching staff into training is like sending soldiers on a dangerous mission without understanding what motivates them to pursue it or what gives them the confidence that they can actually succeed.

Assertiveness or the courage to face one's fears isn't a set of tricks or strategies that can be taught; it only comes about through iterative experiences. These lead to a sense of self-mastery and confidence, which helps employees engage in their work and with others in new ways and enables them to take risks, initiate productive action more often, and contribute more value to the organisation. The kind of trust and emotional security people need to develop must be cultivated in the organisation so fear of change doesn't get in the way. Otherwise, marching staff into training is like sending soldiers on a dangerous mission without understanding what motivates them to pursue it or what gives them the confidence that they can actually succeed. Facing a significant potential for failure and no clear benefit of success, many will simply choose not to engage.

Personality assessments

These are often used to help employees and leaders understand their behaviour. A recent study predicted the global market for such assessments will continue to increase by 10-20% each year beyond the current $2 billion annual figure. However, until recently, the brain styles of each personality and how they best learn has not been factored into training programmes.

But personality tests don't look at the drivers of behaviour. Nor do they provide insights into how employees learn job-related skills, what they might fear about changing their behaviour, and what support they need to integrate their learning with their current responsibilities. Many personality assessments (Myers-Briggs for one) are based on the work of Carl G Jung, who suggested that human behaviour was predictable based on the eight functions of the brain. Other brain-based assessments, such as The Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument, focus on thinking styles rather than the dynamics of the personality and emotional drivers of the behaviour of each style. The Birkman Method assesses behaviour and needs without connecting the brain and emotions. While these assessments are useful, they fail to provide a complete picture of the brain, emotions and personality and how they interact in a learning environment.

In response to what we now know about the brain, we have developed a personality system: Striving Styles. It incorporates brain specialisation, psychological type, neuroscience, emotional intelligence and needs theory as a way of understanding the dynamic and interpersonal aspects of a person's personality and how their needs and emotions support or get in the way of learning and development. Using such an assessment provides the necessary understanding of how to engage the whole person in the learning process rather than trying to create new functional patterns of behaviour without knowing the landscape or of the brain.

Employee development

In the past, organisations could survive by putting the minimum effort and money into their training. Today, employees expect more intrinsic satisfaction from their jobs and to be treated as an individual. This is so prevalent that today, a quarter of the workforce reports being willing to jump ship should they not feel emotionally engaged. And whether these employees leave or perform the minimal job requirements, it is a loss for the organisation.

Programmes need to change from cognitive and information-driven approaches in a workshop or training session to ongoing, experiential learning activities that engage the emotions of the employees positively in a variety of settings, including the workplace. If these critical pieces are left out of training and development efforts, organisational leaders will continue to be frustrated and workers are unlikely to reach their full potential. Loss of potential translates to losses for the bottom line. As former General Electric CEO Jack Welch once declared, "If you're not thinking all the time about making every person more valuable, you don't have a chance. What's the alternative? Wasted minds? Uninvolved people? A labour force that's angry or bored? That doesn't make sense."

Could this be fixed by thinking more about the needs of the people attending learning sessions? Our research shows that those responsible for staff training typically spend more time selecting what they believe is appropriate workshop content than thinking about the needs of the people attending. When this happens, training and development approaches focus on skills and behaviour instead of what drives behaviour and what employees need and feel during the learning process. The underlying belief seems to be that learning is solely a cognitive activity and not an ongoing process that is greatly influenced by the employee's emotions and personality.

We need an innovative paradigm for training and development, swapping the content-driven model for a whole-person approach. Rather than looking at what is being taught, this considers the employee's personality, emotional needs and learning style. Based on recent breakthroughs in the biology of learning, this approach includes what happens physiologically during learning so programmes can be developed to enhance retention of training content and engage employees emotionally.

Anne Dranitsaris is an expert in behavioural change.