Motivation’s not just an important factor in learning. It’s the most important factor.

My wife is an enormous fan of Air Crash Investigation, a TV programme from the National Geographic channel that does docu-drama recreations of emergency aircraft incidents. One such programme was on the other night and I got sucked in since it was about the original ash cloud incident that caused everyone to be cautious when the Icelandic volcano blew a few months back.

What most struck me from the programme was how much the flight crew relied upon training to get them through the experience. I don’t know how many times I heard the pilot or first officer speak about their hours in the flight simulators, or saw a dramatisation of them running through multiple checklists (a reminder of the power of job aids).

Piloting legend Chesley Sullenberger said pretty much the same thing after he successfully landed his Airbus A320 on the Hudson river. Training, discipline, experience and the all-important checklists were mentioned as vital elements in that emergency situation.

The importance of motivation

Learning in a flight simulator is an exciting experience. The trainee pilots carry out emergency actions in an environment almost identical to a real plane – it feels real. But what matters most about the training, what makes it effective, is that they care. They know that this kind of training has saved, and will save, lives. That is a powerful incentive to do the simulations over and over again.

It’s relatively easy to get motivated about saving lives, though. What does this mean for less emotionally charged learning interventions?

Nick Shackleton-Jones has a great video that supplements the blog post about his affective context learning model.

As he explains, in pull/informal learning the motivation is already there. The learner has a need. They look for something to help them, make a choice and then use what they’ve learned in a real life situation. They could be looking in a bespoke online resource, searching the internet, tapping into expert knowledge through a social network or simply turning round to their colleague at the next desk and asking them. It doesn’t matter; the motivation comes unprompted from the learner. It’s not about how flashy or impressive the source of information is, it’s all about what the learner needs there and then and that they apply it.

But pull learning only happens when someone cares enough to learn something new. They need to recognise that there is a performance gap and want to make an effort to close it.

If we were being totally honest, what proportion of the managers that we’ve worked with could we say cared enough about being great at their job that they sought out ways to do it better, unprompted?

Engaging the disengaged

Push learning is often seen to be the answer to this problem. Surely taking people out of their day-to-day work is a sign that something is important?

However, for most push learning, formal learning interventions such as workshops, elearning modules etc, the motivation is almost entirely at the organisational level. The organisation, through its senior managers and professional staff, deems the training important but often forgets to make it relevant to the people receiving the training.

Sometimes the motivation to learn is implicit. But the motivation of trainee pilots – “this training might save my life one day” – is very different to the motivation of someone on a performance management skills course – “this training might be relevant if I ever manage someone who’s a bit awkward (but I don’t have anyone like that at the moment and, anyway, I already get good/satisfactory ratings at my annual appraisals)”.

The motivation to learn is frequently considered to be dealt with by the WIIFM question – what’s in it for me? But this betrays a lack of understanding about our audience. It’s a common bias that we assume that what motivates us, motivates other people – if I care because of reason X, surely everyone else does too?

As a result, we don’t really deal with the question of what we can do to make people care. It’s so often taken as a given but it’s the most important question of all. Without the motivation to genuinely learn and apply something, it’s never going to happen.

As Nick explains in his video:

… Sometimes people don’t care about things when we want them to. So the role of the educator is to encourage people to care by being passionate; by being credible and persuasive and finding ways to connect with people at a personal level. Educators inspire and motivate people, building their confidence and making things matter.

…It means less time spent explaining to people why something is important and more time spent trying to figure out how to make something feel important.

Looking at it from this perspective, finding ways to add affective context to a learning intervention becomes vital. How we can add stories, scenarios and emotional hooks to learning interventions is how we create meaning and therefore motivation.

Learning does not take place in a vacuum

People are motivated to learn for all sorts of different reasons and it’s often the organisational levers outside of the actual learning intervention that make the real difference. The performance management approaches, the internal communication style and modes, the organisational and management culture, the reward and incentive mechanisms – all of these need to be considered alongside the learning intervention because where there is an incongruence between any of these, the performance of managers and employees will be driven by what’s most important to them. That’s not often what they learned on a course. [2]

L&D skills for the future

There are quite a few lists out there outlining the key skills that a learning and development professional needs in order to function effectively in the coming decade or so. Three that I’d recommend reading would be from Charles Jennings, Donald Taylor and Nick Shackleton-Jones. Rather than create my own list (that’s maybe a post for the future), I’d like to suggest the following two areas in which L&D professionals need to develop expertise in in order to really make a difference to the performance of individuals and the organisation:

Expertise in influencing motivation, which involves having a true grasp on what motivates people far beyond simply knowing about Maslow and Herzberg (who, after all, did their work in the 40s, 50s and 60s when psychology was really just getting started). [3]

Expertise in the workplace performance ecology (the gestalt of human workplace performance influences), because only by understanding all the influences on performance outside learning can we expect to design effective learning interventions.

So we come back to my original point, partially inspired by Air Crash Investigations: motivation’s not an important factor in a learning intervention, it’s the important factor. Without motivation, learning will never happen.

[1] Affective: influenced by, or resulting from, emotion.

[2] Of course, this means that in a work context, learning can’t possibly be an outcome in and of itself. It’s always part of a broader goal to improve performance. Finding what makes every individual care enough to learn and improve is as much, if not more, the responsibility of a manager as it is that of learning professionals.

[3] Where the concepts discussed in Drive by Dan Pink and The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely, are starting points for investigation and experimentation rather ideas that spark interest and discussion, but change nothing in real life.