LILA ~ Learning Innovations Laboratory at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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Chris Kayes



Today’s dynamic workforce demands a reevaluation of our approach to work, moving beyond performance metrics towards a culture of continuous learning. Within this framework, learning emerges as the cornerstone for shaping the future workforce, impacting organizational culture, management practices, and leadership development. Incorporating diverse learning methods can improve employees’ resilience, foster personal growth, and enhance overall well-being. Thus, fostering a culture of learning not only enhances work effectiveness but also enriches individuals’ professional lives.

The Role Of Learning In The Changing Workforce

Learning introduces a new approach to how we perceive work. However, managing learning and progress is not always an easy task, as negative emotions can arise when encountering frustration. These negative thoughts and feelings have the potential to impact an individual’s perception of self-efficacy, as well as their approach to learning and progress. For instance, when faced with a challenge perceived as too hard, an individual might opt to withdraw, believing themselves unqualified for the task, or failing to recognize the value in persisting towards a particular goal. Hence, frustration can prevent employees from realizing their potential as learners in the workplace.

The New Workforce

The changes in demographics in the workplace have created a shift in the psychological dynamics in this space. The emergence of new terms like “the great resignation” reflects trends such as employees massively leaving jobs for new opportunities. Other terms like “quiet quitting” and “quiet firing” illustrate nuanced forms of disengagement, where individuals either minimize their efforts or are ignored by their employers. Although commonly associated with negative outcomes, these terms provide insights into how learning can mitigate the challenges arising from the new workplace dynamics.

According to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, there has been a significant decline in the percentage of eligible workers participating in the workforce, particularly following the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. This trend is largely attributed to the aging population, with fewer individuals actively engaging in the workforce. Statistics indicate that approximately 10,000 individuals reach the age of 65 daily, leading to a gradual loss of talent and knowledge.

Other changes in the workforce are related to the psychological and emotional domains. For example, there has been a decline in employee happiness since 2020, indicating broader trends such as increased anxiety, decreased motivation, and disengagement from work. Thus, the challenge lies in adapting to the demands of this evolving psychological contract, which demands us to learn on the edge. However, this process can be uncomfortable. The question then becomes: How can organizations help employees to embrace learning on the edge and navigate discomfort? and how do we make learning a natural part of their daily experiences at work?

Why is Learning Important?

Learning theory, dating back to scholars like Vygotsky, emphasizes the necessity of stepping out of one’s comfort zone into the “Learning Zone” to optimize learning potential. Therefore, discomfort often signifies fertile ground for growth and development. Learning enhances various aspects of the human experience, such as fostering a sense of purpose and personal growth. This also contributes to improved overall well-being, whether through professional responsibilities or personal objectives like learning to play an instrument. In addition, recent research indicates that engaging with stimulating work can mitigate cognitive decline associated with aging. This highlights the benefits of learning, which not only instills a sense of ownership but also correlates with maintaining appropriate levels of stress. While we often overlook it, learning can assist us in moderating stress and coping with challenging situations, acknowledging that a certain level of stress is necessary for learning.

Learning, as defined by David Kolb, involves the transformation of experience into knowledge. Learning requires attention and this is often motivated by curiosity or the desire to explore the discrepancy between existing knowledge and desired knowledge, prompting individuals to move out of their comfort zone. Thus, effective learning includes navigating beyond the comfort zone and engaging in processes of learning at the edge. This means cultivating novel experiences and immersing in enriching and novel environments. It also includes accepting the unpleasant emotions that come to play when moving from the comfort zone into the learning zone. Addressing this challenge, especially prevalent among younger employees, requires support and the implementation of learning strategies to manage unpleasant emotions.

Learning Experiences and Unpleasant Emotions

Motivation to learn encompasses initiating, sustaining, and increasing effort throughout the learning process. Motivation also helps to address challenges such as procrastination, boredom, and maintaining momentum in the face of diminishing interest or perceived challenges. On the other hand, a learning strategy is a comprehensive concept that encompasses behaviors, thoughts, attitudes, and mindsets associated with motivational activities for learning. Learning strategies, often classified under self-regulated learning, encompass techniques for managing emotions and creating a conducive learning environment, including generating positive emotions, seeking challenges, cultivating a learning identity, enhancing flexibility, and fostering social support.

Learning Strategies

  1. Generating Positive Emotions: This is the strongest predictor of sustained learning, emphasizing the importance of finding intrinsic motivation and curiosity-inducing activities. While acknowledging negative emotions, the key challenge lies in making work engaging to foster continuous learning in today’s workforce. This idea aligns with goal-setting, as sustaining activities becomes more challenging without intrinsic motivation and enjoyment.
  2. Seek Challenges and Problem: This includes problem-solving and intentionally crafting situations that push individuals beyond their comfort zones. To enhance learning experiences, it is essential to diversify learning methods and avoid repetitive routines. This approach fosters engagement and excitement, sustaining interest in learning activities.
  3. Cultivate Learning Identity: Basic Psychology explains concepts like efficacy and confidence, which are the foundation of the idea of cultivating a learning identity. This is particularly more relevant among younger individuals transitioning into leadership roles who may lack confidence in their ability to succeed.
  4. Enhance Flexibility: This aspect involves diversifying learning methods and strategies, and exploring various modes of learning. It emphasizes the importance of experimenting with different approaches to enhance learning outcomes.
  5. Social Support: This learning strategy emphasizes how resources such as coaching, feedback, and social support across various levels are crucial for employees’ development and learning.

Improvement: Frustration Difference Profiles By Latent Groups

In a research study participants were prompted to recall moments of frustration and progress in their learning experiences, highlighting the contrasting emotions associated with each. This analysis revealed two distinct groups: the resilient, who consistently applied learning strategies during both frustration and progress, and the susceptible, who failed to use these strategies during moments of frustration, negatively impacting their learning outcomes. The data also highlighted a significant impact of frustration on learning outcomes. For example, in the resilient group, individuals maintained positive emotional engagement even during times of frustration, contributing to their ability to sustain learning efforts.

Conditions of Learning at the Organizational Level:

To foster the implementation of these strategies, managers can encourage employees in various ways. Firstly, they can promote curiosity, which keeps engagement alive by prompting individuals to seek new information and explore different perspectives. Secondly, they can encourage individuals to find challenges, even within tasks that may seem routinary, fostering problem-solving skills and maintaining engagement. Third, managers can affirm employees’ ability to learn and reinforcing a positive learning identity, thereby supporting their effectiveness as learners. Finally, leaders can help employees to consider different approaches to their tasks or challenges, promoting flexibility and adaptability in problem-solving.

Key Takeaways

We are at a transformational moment in the evolving workforce, with changing demographics giving us a unique opportunity to redefine the future of work. This presents a chance to reshape how people perceive and engage with work for the generations to come. Learning stands as a crucial resource in fostering resilience, growth, and overall well-being. By integrating learning practices and strategies, along with fostering cultures of learning, organizations can effectively equip employees with the tools they need to thrive. Leaders in the human resources and learning roles are encouraged to develop and support these approaches to ensure the success of employees and organizations alike.

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