Don’t call it learning

Written by Paul Matthews on 29 March 2017

What do you mean I have no charisma! Moi? You can’t say that to me! Then again, maybe you can. You’re my boss. And, if I am honest with myself, maybe you have a point when I think of how people react when I speak at meetings.

So now what? How can I fix that? I mean, what the hell do you do when you get that kind of feedback? Where can I find out about what makes people charismatic?
Who do I know who is charismatic? (Not my boss for sure!)

That was John’s reaction.

Sally was asked to organise a new photocopier for the team so they could have one in their own office area, and not have to keep trekking down the hall. With the amount of copying they did, it was quite a big waste of time.

Her reaction was to find some suppliers and start nailing down a specification for the kind of machine they needed. She knew she just had to find out enough about photocopiers to get the job done, and get back to her other tasks.

...few people think they need to ‘learn’ something. They tend to have a different description in their minds about what they need.

James was proud of his new job, but it meant he was going to have to run some short training courses for their customers to teach them how to use their new thermal imaging cameras. Now, he knew all about these cameras, because he was on the design team, but he couldn’t imagine himself in front of a room talking to a group of people.

He thought ‘Maybe I can find some stuff on YouTube that will give me some pointers on how to prepare a session, and also prepare myself! And who can I ask who has already done this for some of our other products?’

These sorts of stories happen all the time in every workplace. People are given some feedback on something they could do better, a task they’ve never done before, get a new role, and they start looking for help and answers.

What is interesting is that few people think they need to ‘learn’ something. They tend to have a different description in their minds about what they need. They tend to think of finding out about something, or finding a resource, or asking a colleague for tips, or getting in some practice.

So in that moment, when you offer ‘learning’, there is a disconnect with what they want. They know, inside, that they want something else because they are calling it something else. In fact, they do ‘need’ learning in that they need to learn about something on order to get better at it, or do it at all.

There is a mismatch in their minds between what they want and what they need. But, given human nature, they will look for what they ‘know’ they want, and will mostly ignore what they don’t want, even if it is what they need. Their ‘radar’ will be tuned for what they want.

Here is the other side of the coin. We know they probably don’t ‘want’ learning. It’s not on their radar. But if they do glance our way when we are peddling learning, what will they see? What does average employee think of when they are offered or 'confronted' with learning? Here’s a radical idea... Ask them!

I did and here’s what I found. 

Although my sample was small, and the results variable, there was a trend. They mostly equate learning with formal courses, and even in some cases, just school and the education system.

Learning for them was something done outside of the work process, often perceived as pretty useless for helping them do their job. It does of course depend on their experience with training courses and elearning.

So, if you offer them learning, it does not get their attention, because it is not what they want and not what they are looking for. If you do manage to get their attention with your offer of learning, their view of learning is that it probably wouldn’t help them anyway. So, DON’T call it learning!

What do you call it?

Put your marketing hat on and imagine, or even better ask, what your target audience would be looking for. Then offer them that instead.


About the author
Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, as well as management development and employee performance improvement. 


Read more from Paul here

I learn it when I do it

I need to tell them they are idiots - politely

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