Why future workplace learning needs to go beyond skill-building

Many HR, Talent and business leaders are rethinking the way workplace learning is approached, designed and delivered. It is not an understatement to assert that a revolution in the world of organisational learning is occurring and the paradigms, content and formats for learning will all be significantly different in a decade or less.

In addition to some of the obvious technological changes to learning technologies and formats, such as virtual reality. Some of the big changes we are seeing include:

  • Ensuring learning is a more natural part of work and arises from day-to-day interactions with co-workers and others.
  • The importance of vertical development as opposed to simply focusing on building technical or functional skills to help people perform better. This involves helping people develop their thinking capabilities to handle tasks that are more complex, fast-changing and ambiguous, requiring higher levels of strategic, creative and collaborative input.
  • The importance of measuring not just what people have learned, but more importantly, the impact on business performance.

However, learning is still overwhelmingly focused on building functional and technical skills and more commonly understood ‘soft skills’ such as time management, negotiation and communication. Little consideration is given to how to shift mindsets and behaviours to boost important capabilities associated with psychological capital, including resilience, optimism, self-esteem and agility.

Yet, it is psychological capital that will be vital to navigate the growing uncertainty and turbulence most businesses face today. Organizations can no longer rely on simply growing their financial and human capital to remain profitable and effective, they will need psychological capital to innovate, attract and retain top talent, build agility, learn quicker and outpace the competition.

So what can organisations do to build the psychological capital of their workforce?

One proven way to do this is to incorporate proven strengths-based assessment and learning techniques and tools into learning plans, processes and programs and to build a strengths and solutions-based culture that helps accelerate positive mindsets, behaviours and relationships.

We define strengths as “underlying qualities that energise us, and we are great at (or have potential to become great at).”

This is different from the mainstream definition of strengths which defines them as “stuff you’re good at”. The importance of this distinction is significant. Recent research shows that people learn faster and better when they are building skills and knowledge in areas where they have greatest passion (or positive energy).

Several decades of research on elite performers such as maestro musicians and Olympic athletes underscores the importance of this passion to help the person persevere during thousands of hours of dedicated practice and disciplined focus on achieving ever-greater goals. Many people have the ability to be great performers, but only those with the passion achieve peak performance.

Helping people discover and optimise their strengths accelerates learning and psychological capital in a variety of other ways, including:

  1. Enabling people to build a more positive, optimistic mindset by making them aware of how their beliefs and attitudes are impacting their behaviour and results. A focus on strengths and solutions enables people to consciously notice self-limiting, deficit-based thinking and negative emotions such as helplessness and frustration. This ‘Path of Possibility™’ thinking (also called a “growth mindset”) is shown through research to significantly accelerate effective learning and success.
  2. Improving peoples’ sense of belonging and agility through encouraging collaborative learning with co-workers and others, as a strengths approach encourages people to work with others in areas where they are weaker or when facing difficulties or challenges.
  3. Strengthening optimism and confidence to overcome stubborn weaknesses and other performance problems by finding strengths-based ways of tackling these. In working with thousands of people over 10 years, we have found that people often find creative and breakthrough ways to tackling their weaknesses when they are encouraged to do so using their natural strengths (and those of their co-workers). They also learn how to distinguish strengths in overdrive (when natural strengths are overplayed and cause unintended performance problems) from genuine weaknesses. This typically reduces defensive behaviour, enabling them to quickly replace the problematic behaviours with more productive ones.
  4. Building people’s esteem and agility to go beyond their comfort zone through applying their strengths in new and different ways to improve their effectiveness. For example, recent research and experience shows that performance conversations that focus on strengths and future successes are more motivating and performance-enhancing that those that focus on weaknesses and past performance.

Neuroscience research supports the effectiveness of a strengths-based approach to learning. People learn quicker and more effectively when they are energised by what they are learning. The learning process gives rise to positive emotions and ‘happy hormones’ like oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins that speed up the learning process and create strong, positive reinforcement of the new habits.

Using a strengths-based approach to learning and development is relatively straightforward. Here are some ways organisations can implement the approach:

  1. Help people discover their natural strengths using an accurate and user-friendly profiler like Strengthscope®.
  2. Encourage people to adopt an 80-20 principle when planning their development with 80% of their limited development time focused on optimising strengths and the remainder on tackling weaker areas and overplayed strengths.
  3. Build a coaching culture so that managers and coaches enable people to use their natural strengths (and those of people around them) to find their own solutions to challenges, adverse events and tough dilemmas.
  4. Create a culture where people are encouraged to experiment by playing their strengths in novel ways to create value for the company. Just like the trainee magicians at the Hogwarts magic school in Harry Potter, employees need encouragement and space to experiment and try new ways of using their talents. Learning involves trial and error, as well as occasional mistakes so the culture should be tolerant of mistakes and provide employees with coaching and support on how to recognise when things are going wrong, including the art of ‘failing fast’.
  5. Use stretch projects and assignments to challenge individuals and teams to apply and practice their strengths and new skills in tackling real-life business challenges following training programs.
  6. Use strengths-based development centres and technology-enabled simulations to help people understand how their strengths and skills hold up under pressure and fast-changing situations. Just like pilot simulation training, this type of training will help people build the agility, confidence and resilience to deal with almost any eventuality.
  7. Reinforce progress, as well as positive results, with encouragement, praise and recognition.

Focusing on skill building is no longer sufficient to deliver sustainable, fast growing organisations in today’s fast-changing world. HR, talent and business leaders need to better understand psychological capital and how to integrate this throughout the organisation’s learning plans and programs.

A relatively straightforward way of doing this is to incorporate strengths-based tools and techniques already available and proven over several decades with organisations around the world. These aren’t a panacea, however, they are a great starting point to future-proof your workforce and culture at a time when every organisation requires increasing positivity, agility, resilience and productivity.

James Brook