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Motivation and Learning: Ties that Bind

Submitted by  on September 17th, 2012

Motivation written on blackboard“Organic” adult learning grows out of love. When someone has a burning desire to learn something they typically find the teacher (or source). There is a strong link between motivation and the desire to acquire new knowledge and skills. The desire or need to learn grows out of relevance, prior learning and social or professional needs (e.g., work, parenting). In the Information Age where data is everywhere, we now have the freedom to learn nearly anything at any time. No longer are certain skills or knowledge reserved to those in the ivory tower or corner office.

At Work

For employers investing in work-related learning and development or training, there isn’t always the natural love of learning to inspire the effort. Still, being learner-centered, and therefore tapping into what each person finds motivating, is key. The exception of course is “compliance-based training.” Getting trainees fired up for a long round of mandatory safety training videos or slides depicting information they already know may require an endless supply of free cookies, paid training time and a good humoured facilitator (bribery and cajoling perhaps?).

Research has repeatedly shown that money is a short-term incentive at best and does not lead to long-term or meaningful engagement in task completion. While workers may jump ship for higher pay or end up poached like eggs, employers waving the almighty dollar hoping to capture the heartfelt desire to add value and 110% of an employee’s effort will find this quick-fix woefully inadequate over the long-term. Daniel Pink’s recent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, reinforces that point. Pink focuses on the three intrinsic motivations that workplaces should concern themselves with: Mastery – getting better at what matters, Autonomy – being able to direct their own lives/work, and Purpose – being part of something larger than one self.

Too often employers, parents, teachers and others reduce motivation to “carrots and sticks.” Pink would argue that high performance and satisfaction require going beyond those basics. In fact, elementary Behaviorism may work better with small children and animals! Humans have the deep-seated need to direct their own lives, be creative and learn to make our lives and community a better place. Clearly what social scientists know and what workplaces (or schools) do is not always aligned to support motivation, particularly in learning.

Learning and Change

There are many authors, instructors and professional speakers whose intent is to inform or persuade, while others hope to inspire action. Ideally, speakers and educators should strive to do both. When learning is captivating and compelling (i.e., motivating), we are more likely to learn and retain better. Motivation to learn is linked to motivation to change – a competitive advantage for an individual, group, organizational or society. Indeed to quote French author, Francois Rochefoucauld, “The only thing constant in life is change”. As a result, the best we can do is learn how to learn effectively and efficiently to keep pace with (if not exceed) the rate of change, with the aid of our main competitive advantage – learning.

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Do your managers need help in communicating with your employees in times of change? Download our popular Managing Change in the Workplace guide and workbook. The guide covers every aspect of communicating change and leading a successful change project. As you work through the guide, you will complete a series of practical exercises that will help you plan and manage your change initiative for maximum impact. Find out more about Managing Change in the Workplace and download the free introductory chapter today.

Posted in Training | Comments (5)

5 Responses to “Motivation and Learning: Ties that Bind”

  1. Alice Bethport Says:

    I found it such a great and interesting article. Topics like that need to be talked about inside the learning community. I consider that learners necessitate on being motivated as well, especially about how to affect what they have learned to their work.

  2. Leslie Allan Says:

    Thanks Alice for your comments. I agree. We need to pay a lot more attention to getting learners to apply what they have learned to their job. I’ve taken a keen interest in this subject over many years. I even wrote a book on it called From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance. You can check it out at

    Thanks again for your valuable input.

    Kind Regards, Les Allan

  3. Karen Says:

    Indeed, learning, motivation and change are inextricably linked, personally and professionally. It would be terrific if more employers caught on to this wondrous secret.


  4. Rene Zamora Says:

    I get so excited when I work with managers who are more focused on what people are learning or understanding rather than what they are teaching, informing or sharing. It is a shift of thinking to understand what we say and do is only a catalyst to how well people learn. I can only call myself a good teacher/trainer or coach if others are learning. When people are learning they tend to get motivated. Nice article.

  5. Karen Says:

    Right you are Rene, focusing on the learners (not just content) is what instructors need to do. Making the content come alive by finding out what they know and making it relevant and engaging, is critical.

    Love your self-reflection that effective teaching is tied to effective instruction/coaching. Thanks for your comment.

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