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Why Managers Are Perfectly Positioned to Help Workers Learn

What limits our learning? Anyone can give a few guesses — fear of failure, uncertain priorities, distracting TikTok videos — but Degreed decided to find out for sure.

In our latest research report, How the Workforce Learns, we asked hundreds of workers about the biggest obstacles to their learning and development. Here’s what they said:

How managers can make or break a learning culture

Four factors topped the list: time, guidance, recognition, and encouragement. These are complex problems, with no panacea to cure them all. And yet, with a little strategy and effort, these obstacles can be overcome.

Thinking about these challenges, I realized that one group was perfectly positioned to help with all of the biggest issues: managers.

Managers are already the most trusted source for learning inside any organization. Even as workers use their networks and favorite websites to build new skills, our research shows that they’re still counting on managers. Compared to other parts of the company, it’s not even close. Employees look to their managers for learning recommendations 22% more than their official learning systems, and 73% more than their organization’s L&D team.

So, what exactly can managers do about the limits on our learning? Let’s take it one step at a time.

#4 “My manager doesn’t encourage or enable learning.” (22%)

Here is the easiest issue for most managers to fix. Too many leaders aren’t even talking to people about skill-building. In our survey, just 41% of workers said their managers help them understand the skills needed to advance.

At a minimum, managers should start having regular career conversations with their direct reports. Checking in about goals and opportunities can build trust and align expectations. Chats like these are an easy chance to give that encouragement that people crave.

To take it up a level, the most helpful move would be for managers to co-create learning plans with employees. A list of relevant topics, skills, and roles would give workers the clarity they need to develop themselves. Include a timeline to help people prioritize. Then, revisiting and revising these learning plans can become the basis of those regular career check-ins.

#3 “Lack of guidance or direction in learning.” (30%)

Managers are the main source of guidance and direction for almost everything at work. They tell people what tasks to do and when they need to be done. If a worker needs help or clarification, the manager is usually the person to ask. 

This should be how learning happens, too. Learning systems can’t provide the human touch needed in a moment of confusion; L&D leaders are often too far removed to grasp each individual’s aspirations and concerns.

But managers have the strategic insights and the personal relationships. With learning analytics, they can identify emerging skills that the organization needs to succeed, and they can direct people to develop these abilities. When they notice someone with ambition, managers can assign stretch projects to push that worker to apply whatever they’re learning.

To give good guidance, though, managers must know the difference between control and power. A control manager gets paranoid about people wasting time. He assumes that an employee watching a YouTube video must be goofing off, not learning something new. A power manager, on the other hand, assigns tasks and gets out of the way. She trusts her people, and she isn’t worried about every move that workers make along the way.

What's the difference between a "control manager" and a "power manager"?

People want direction from their managers. But these directions should be powerful, not controlling. This is especially true for learning. Don’t suffocate workers while they’re building new skills; just give the guidance that helps them understand where they’re going.

#2 “My company doesn’t recognize or reward learning.” (30%)

This obstacle might seem daunting. How can a manager change the culture of an entire organization? Do managers have the resources to give meaningful rewards?

Don’t worry, recognition and rewards can start simple. In team meetings, talk about what you are learning and ask others to share, too. I had a manager who put this question on the agenda for every staff meeting. It was a low-pressure technique to remind everyone that learning matters. (Plus, it was always interesting to hear people’s answers!)

Many Degreed clients use their internal communications to recognize learning. Analyzing data from the platform makes it easy to spot the most dedicated learners. Why not give them a shout-out in your next email update? Some organizations also set up learning competitions. What about challenging your team to see who learns the most in the next month and offering a small prize for the winner?

Of course, the most meaningful reward for learning is career advancement. Too many organizations overlook internal mobility. Matthew Bidwell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, found that outside hires need 2-3 years to match the performance of internal hires on the same job. Outside hires are also more likely to leave the company. And yet, Bidwell realized, these outsiders earn much more, on average.

Organizations are more interested in external talent than in their own employees.

Instead of paying a premium for outside talent, organizations should invest in internal mobility whenever it makes sense. Managers have a huge role to play here because they can spot high-potential workers and identify the roles where these folks will thrive. They can also help people build the skills needed to land these in-demand jobs. Not only will this help organizations close their skills gaps, but it will also motivate workers to learn even more.

#1 “I don’t have (or make) the time to learn.” (43%)

Time is the biggest obstacle to learning at work. With too much to do, learning can feel like a luxury. But this is partly about priorities. Managers need to make it clear that learning matters. Given a challenging new task, or a clear mandate from their leader, people will feel more comfortable taking the time to learn.

Once workers prioritize learning, managers can share strategies to help them use their time wisely. Harvard Business Review recommends making a “to-learn” list, setting aside dedicated learning time, joining an online workplace learning channel, and more helpful tips for learning in the flow of work.

Another key trend is microlearning. This scientifically proven strategy starts with small doses of information, followed by spaced repetition, retrieval practice, and confidence assessments.

Finally, managers should lead by example. If you don’t make time to learn, your people will notice and they won’t take your encouragement seriously. With a few small gestures, though, managers can model smart learning behaviors. Block off some learning time on your calendar, so everyone else can see. Reflect on your own skill-building efforts during check-ins with your team. Track your progress and share content on a networked learning platform like Degreed.

In the long run, learning will save time for everyone. With the right skills, we will be far more productive. Managers must remind their teams of this, just like they give reminders about deadlines and goals. If managers take skill-building seriously, it will only get easier to do everything else.

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