Three Ways to Motivate Employees to Learn

Show, rather than tell, to encourage employee growth.

Human motivation is a crazy thing, and we’ve learned a lot more about what motivates people from writers like Daniel Pink (“Drive”) and Carol Dweck (“Mindset”). If you have kids, you also know this first-hand.

If you tell children they have to do something, there is resistance, but if you help them figure things out for themselves, they own it. Guess what? Adults are no different.

For decades, HR departments have been focused on managing an employee’s performance: how to rate them, how to fit them into a standardized model, and how to communicate deficiencies and skill gaps so their performance will improve. This hasn’t been very inspiring or motivating for employees.

If you are familiar with Gallup’s ongoing poll on employee engagement, it’s no wonder the numbers are scary low and have been for 17 years straight. Seven in 10 employees are not engaged at work, and about two in 10 are actively disengaged, which can be detrimental not only for employees, but for your company and your employer brand.

There is an obvious connection between engagement and motivation. So, how can you motivate your employees so they are happy and engaged at work? First, let’s look at the six key drivers for engagement at work:

  1. Clear career path.
  2. Involved in decisions that affect my work.
  3. Necessary development — what employees need to do to get better at the job they have today.
  4. Career development — learning and skills employees need to build to prepare for their next job or their dream job.
  5. Teamwork.
  6. Manager understands what motivates me.

Four out of these six engagement drivers have to do with career development, and career development is all about learning. People want to gain knowledge and build skills that will help them be successful. And they want to know the company they work for is investing in them, now and for their future. This isn’t just a nice-to-have for people anymore. Here are three ways you can motivate your employees to learn.

  1. Encourage employees to discover their passions and aspirations. I’ve seen a lot of leaders and a lot of employees who want predefined career paths for employees, but it’s not that easy. Each person’s career goals should be unique and personalized based on their prior knowledge, past experiences and existing skills. We don’t live in a standardized, one-size-fits-all world. So, give your employees the responsibility to explore what motivates and inspires them. This kind of autonomy can be a little scary, but it can also be empowering and motivating. There are lots of tools, assessments and questions employees can use to help them discover what they value, what they are passionate about, and what motivates them.
  1. Have employees create a personalized career learning plan. Once employees have explored their career aspirations, they should give themselves more clarity by putting together short- and long-term career goals. They can then put their learning in the context of those goals. Mapping out what skills they want and need to build is the first step, followed by figuring out what learning they will need to build these skills. The great news is there is no shortage of learning available to help employees build these skills — courses, books, videos, podcasts, classes, articles and events are a few examples. The motivation comes when employees can see progress against their career goals and see that they are actually building new skills for the future.
  1. Provide guidance, support and input. Even though it’s up to the employee to create their career goals, employees need input. Managers don’t have to drive the career goals — that’s the employee’s job — but they can be a great source of guidance and support. Employees will feel they have a partner in growing their careers, and they can also get input from peers and mentors they admire and perhaps want to emulate. As employees work through the learning tied to the skills and knowledge they need to achieve their career goals, they will be motivated by the support managers can provide.

In addition, if as a manager you are giving employees regular feedback on how they are doing against their work goals, you can provide input in a motivating way about areas they may need to work on to develop necessary skills to get better at the job they do today. Maybe most important, help your employees with opportunities to work on projects or fill open roles that will let them apply the skills they have been building.

The need to motivate our employees and recognize that we need to do more to engage people at work is becoming one of the most important things we can do for a company’s success. If we can raise employee engagement and motivation at work, it will positively impact productivity, performance and profitability. That just makes good business sense.

Kelly Palmer is chief learning and talent officer at Degreed. Comment below, or email