How To Make Learning a Priority at Work

How To Make Learning a Priority at Work
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Developing Talent at Work
Talent management and development is an essential ingredient in any organization’s success. In fact, our organizational alignment research found that talent accounts for 29% of the difference between high and low performing organizations. To develop talent, you need to makes learning a priority at work.

While few argue the benefits of upskilling employees, the reality is that everyone also has deadlines, deliverables, and pressures to perform. Even the most well-intentioned people leaders can fall prey to the requirement to perform in the short-term and delay or cancel previously important training programs.        

All too often, training and career development is categorized in the “Not-Urgent but Important” quadrant and, as such, developing talent can get put off until tomorrow in favor of tasks with more urgency.  And from our perspective, this is often the right move to make.

What Can Managers and Organizations Do to Make Learning a Priority at Work?
Our microlearning experts cite a recent study conducted at Johns Hopkins University that provides some answers.

The Research
A team of researchers conducted a series of experiments to examine how people prioritize tasks. Specifically, the researchers were curious about how a sense of urgency might affect people’s decision making when deciding between options.

In one study, researchers presented 400 participants with a choice between two typing challenges, each lasting only three minutes. The activity was exactly the same, but there were two key differences.

  • Task One had to be completed within a five-minute window and offered a chance at a $20 gift card.
  • Task Two could be completed any time within a 50-minute window and offered a chance at a $25 gift card.

Rationally, the choice is clear ? $25 is greater than $20. But that’s not what dictated the decision. After a few rounds of choosing between the two tasks, 59% of participants chose Task One ? the option offering a chance at less money.

Why would so many people choose the less rewarding option? To the researchers, the answer was clear: Urgency. Task One had a much shorter window (five minutes), creating a feeling of expiration, which engendered a sense of urgency. Participants were motivated by the ticking clock.

The researchers call this irrational psychological preference the urgency effect.

How We Prioritize
The researchers explain the urgency effect this way: “People may choose to perform urgent tasks with short completion windows, instead of important tasks with larger outcomes, because important tasks are more difficult and further away from goal completion. Urgent tasks involve more immediate and certain payoffs….”

Let’s break down these ideas into three important points.

  • According to this study and past research, urgent tasks grab our attention. Even if it’s unimportant, a task with a short deadline stimulates us to act.
  • Important tasks are often more complex and, therefore, are perceived as more difficult — even if they’re not. We’re tempted to do the easy thing instead of the hard thing.
  • The reward or payoff from completing an urgent task is felt immediately, while working on an important, longer task will take much longer to pay off — if it ever does.

This effect helps explain why, in the real world, Urgent Non-Important Tasks often trump Non-Urgent Important Tasks. And there was even a more detrimental outcome. The study found that busy people are more likely than others to fall prey to the urgency effect. So, for example, your busy employees may opt to spend 30 minutes answering unimportant emails rather than, say, working on a valuable new skill.

Three Recommendations to Make Learning a Priority at Work
How can managers and learning organizations keep workplace learning near the top of the priority list?

Here are some recommendations based on the research.

  1. Focus on Relevant Outcomes
    Perhaps most important, the research suggests that focusing on the outcomes of a meaningful task can help negate the urgency effect. So, when talking about training, be sure to talk about the training relevance, rewards, and benefits to the learner, their boss, and the organization as a whole compared to their “day job.”

    Outcomes could be improvements in job performance, opportunities for a promotion, or the potential of increased pay ? whatever positive outcomes are appropriate for your situation. Take the focus off the perceived challenges and put the spotlight on the benefits to key stakeholders.
  2. Make Learning Easy to Consume
    Employee learning journeys don’t need to be complicated or time intensive.   Know what matters most to your target audience and design your learning solutions accordingly.

    Invest in customized instructional designs that fit your unique situation instead of off-the-shelf training made for the masses. 

    Be smart about the timing.  Don’t schedule business sales training at the end of a quarter and don’t schedule a project retrospective right before your next big release.

    Use prework, videos, targeted job-aids, articles, and on-the-job learning to make it easy for various learning styles.
  3. Celebrate Small Wins
    While each employee may have an individual development plan, new skills and performance improvements that are earned incrementally during the year should be recognized, reinforced, and celebrated.

The Bottom Line
Don’t let the important value of continuous learning be a victim of the urgency effect. Make sure you focus on comparative relevance, urgency, benefits to your target participants, their bosses, and the company as a whole.

To learn more about how to make learning a priority at work, download The 7 Principles of Effective Training for Today’s Workforce

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