“But,” they say, “what if my employees just aren’t motivated?”

I hear that quite a lot when I talk with leaders at all levels about cultivating learning culture or supporting self-directed learning. They think employees don’t want to learn. Their evidence is that despite offering accessible resources, employees seem to take the easiest route to learn barely enough. There are concerns about employees’ lack of initiative in identifying and working on new skills, or a seeming lack of desire to do what it takes to become more effective in their roles. There are far too many disappointing results from employees around completing development plans, or applying what they should have learned in training back on the job.

And L&D professionals sometimes share that experience; learners may voluntarily sign up for a comprehensive learning event, but they don’t complete much of the prework or engage enthusiastically in the recommended learning activities.

To counteract that, we often urge managers to “motivate” their employees. As if “motivate” is an action verb – something you can do to others that makes them want to learn or put forth effort for some end. But motivation is an urge that comes from within, not from without.

What are leaders supposed to do when their people don’t seem to have that fire-in-the-belly to want to deepen their knowledge or expand their skills?

For the answer to that question, it’s helpful to know how motivation works – and more specifically to understand the dynamics of motivation to learn.

For the moment, let’s lay aside the real possibility that what is read as lack of motivation is actually a reaction to lack of support, lack of care toward removing barriers, lack of being given time and resources for learning. But if you feel like you are doing all you can to support your employees’ learning and development, and still not seeing them take up the cause, then perhaps knowing more about the factors that go into motivation will give you additional ideas on what to do.

What motivation is

Motivation is something you see and feel – an intent toward some goal with a demonstrated capacity to initiate and sustain action toward achieving that goal. There’s an element of intensity as well – that motivational drive falls on a continuum from being just noticeable to being quite powerful. Importantly, motivation is also context-specific; it is associated with a particular goal or activity. A person may be strongly motivated to learn one skill, and not at all motivated to learn another.

When people are tested for motivation-to-learn as a general characteristic, they are usually asked to assess themselves on a variety of prompts that might measure their sense of curiosity, desire to grow, interest in solving problems, persistence in powering through barriers, willingness to dedicate time or discretionary effort, experience of flow, enjoyment in learning, and other characteristics. As you might imagine, these affective states are difficult to assess in the absence of context and are therefore sometimes evaluated related to a specific domain or environment. A generalized motivation-to-learn may not matter in the specific context of most concern to you as a leader who wants to motivate workplace learning on a specific subject or skill.

People also make a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation – motivation that comes from within the person, and motivation that is influenced by external factors. It often seems that intrinsic motivation is stronger, somehow more noble and desirable. But there are levels of extrinsic motivation, from basically attempting to force people to learn (which is not effective or advisable), to influencing learners to adapt learning goals as their own and helping them to feel they can be successful. While perhaps less pure than intrinsic motivation, this kind of integrated motivation is quite strong and very common. When you understand the dynamics of motivation, you can discern some of the ways to influence learners’ motivation.

The dynamics of motivation

Most of what we know about motivation-to-learn comes from broader research and theorizing on motivation writ large and from a literature stream on learner motivation in formal education settings.

There are six nutrients for motivation – factors that influence its strength. The fancy words for those influences are value, expectation, self-efficacy, autonomy, load, and relatedness. In plain speak, we can extrapolate that motivation-to-learn is driven by:

  • Personal importance (value). How important the knowledge or skill is to the person for their own reasons.
  • Expectation of gain. How strongly the learner sees a connection between learning (increasing knowledge or skill) and their true desired outcome (new opportunities, better performance, deeper belonging to a group). They analyze the if-then: if I learn this, then it will lead to that desired outcome. People look at net gain, so the return they think they may get is weighed against costs in time, risk (possible consequences of failure), discomfort, etc.
  • Belief in learning capability (self-efficacy). The degree to which a person believes they can learn in this specific arena – that if they put forth the effort, they can increase their knowledge or skill, that learning will not be too difficult. Note that a person’s belief that they can learn is subject-skill-context-specific, not generalized. Self-efficacy is also not the same as what people refer to as growth mindset – the generalized optimistic belief that intelligence and skill can be developed through persistent effort.
  • Autonomy. The sense of control over one’s own choices and actions.
  • Capacity (load). How much capacity they have to pursue learning. This capacity is expanded or diminished with available time, access to relevant resources, and the quality of needed support.
  • Interpersonal support (relatedness). A feeling of care, belonging, and connection with others in the environment; positive emotional engagement that comes from learning activities.

Notice that the motivation to learn is often not as much about learning as it is about attaining something that can be gained by learning. There’s a whole chain of connection here; learning leads to increased knowledge or skill, which in turn leads to a desired outcome or opportunity. That sequence is supported or interrupted by their capacity to engage in learning activities, belief that learning is possible, ability to choose paths, and degree of support in the environment. Learning can be driven simply from desire (curiosity), but that’s not often what is at the heart of learning in a work context.

In the adult learning literature, two frameworks help to define what is needed to promote motivation-to-learn: John Keller’s ARCS model and Raymond Wlodkowski’s four motivating conditions. ARCS stands for Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction and the motivating conditions are: establishing inclusion, developing attitude (favorable disposition to learning), enhancing meaning, and engendering competence. These theories were developed in the context of formal training and education programs, and they can be informative in other learning contexts (e.g. informal learning, leader-led development).

These frameworks suggest that boosting employee motivation-to-learn involves establishing an environment of inclusion and connection, focusing attention on learning goals, tying learning to each individual’s goals and drivers, ensuring that the learning project is meaningful and relevant, making sure learning activities are engaging, and building confidence with plenty of practice and feedback. These recommendations align with the influencing factors described in the broader research on motivation as well (as described above: value, expectation, self-efficacy, autonomy, load, and relatedness).

Nurturing motivation

Once you understand what nurtures motivation, you can extrapolate some of the things you can do as a manager to bolster your employees’ motivation to learn specific skills or knowledge bases.

Personal importance. Have discussions with employees about what they want to learn and why. Knowing their interests related to career growth and professional skill set will help you to know what learning projects intrigue them and what learning goals are motivating.

Expectation of gain. Reinforce the tie between learning and broader or longer-term outcomes or consequences. Theoretical drivers of motivation include autonomy, competence/mastery, social benefit, relatedness (caring, mutual respect), purpose, and curiosity. But you should be able to get a lot more specific than that if you get to know your employees. What does the employee want that would draw them to want to learn a specific topic or skill? For some, that may well be mastery of a skill that intrigues them, but others are hoping that mastery may lead to other outcomes. Don’t assume they want the same things you want, or the same as their peers. The more specific you can be about what they can gain from learning, the more you will be able to draw a line of sight. But be realistic and don’t overpromise the potential benefits.

Belief in learning capability. According to research on self-efficacy, your employees’ belief that they can learn a skill is influenced by several factors: observing role models’ success in learning (especially if the role models have a lot in common with them), assurances from others that they can learn and are making progress, and gut feeling (emotional state), as well as their own demonstrated success in making advances. Therefore, set them up for success by giving them relatable role models and providing encouragement and feedback along the way.

Autonomy. Sustain your employees’ sense of autonomy by offering choices, especially by providing a wide range of learning resources and activities that are at different levels of expertise, different levels of depth, and different formats. Make sure the resources are easy for them to access and provide enough description so they can make reasoned choices as to how they want to learn.

Capacity (load). Make sure employees have time to learn. Provide activities that can be done in short durations, but also make room in employees’ schedules for sustained learning activities. It’s important to monitor stress levels and well-being as well – people can’t learn if they are exhausted and anxious regardless of how much time you may give them. You can also expand capacity by removing barriers – making sure they have financial support, curated resources, appropriate equipment, and anything else they need in order to learn efficiently and effectively.

Interpersonal support. Provide the care and social reinforcement employees need to feel that they are supported in their learning efforts. Making learning a group effort may be one of your strategies. But simply demonstrating your interest and support will go a long way in sustaining their learning efforts.

Clarify and customize

In the Leader’s Guide to Developing People, two sets of moves set you up for boosting motivation to learn. First, you need to find ways to clarify. Clarify career goals, skill strengths (self-assessment and validation), interest in specific kinds of tasks, and individual learning and development goals. You can use a number of tools to do that, most critically simply having deep conversations with employees about what is important to them. Once you’ve clarified, then you can customize your efforts to address particular needs and remove specific barriers.

Motivation is very powerful. Motivated employees will go after and learn from a wide variety of resources (almost regardless of how “good” they are), while people who are not particularly motivated won’t put forth necessary effort. In our rapidly changing work environments, desire and ability to learn are among the most prized employee characteristics.

And yet there may be a mismatch between what employees want to learn, and what you want or need them to develop in order to support your organization’s goals. You may also have a mismatch between their perception of the learning environment – how smooth learning might be – and yours.  If you know what your employees are thinking, what is in their hearts, then you’ll be able to better match your recommendations and your developmental efforts. You may even be able to influence their thinking a bit – helping them to see possibilities they do not see for themselves.

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”
~ Robert Louis Stevenson

One of the most important gifts you can give to employees is to nourish their motivation – to help them to find the joy in the work and the purpose in their learning. While those motivations live within each employee, you shouldn’t underestimate how much managers’ actions can influence them. You can plant the seeds for motivation-to-learn and nurture steady growth.

For deeper reference:

Motivation to learn: An overview of contemporary theories. By David A Cook and Anthony R Artino Jr. (Medical Education 50(10), 2016)
Solid overview of several prominent theories of motivation relevant to motivation to learn. Recommend download of PDF to read.

Adult Learning: Linking theory and practice / Chapter 8 – Motivation and learning. By Sharan B. Merriam and Laura L. Bierema (Wiley, 2013)
A readable textbook on adult learning suitable for any learning professional’s bookshelf.