Are managers really that important to workplace learning?
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Are managers really that important to workplace learning?

Learning in the workplace is increasingly a solitary pursuit. Learners typically access new information by sitting alone at their desk, watching an e-learning module or reading an article. Often it’s really up to the employee to invest the requisite time and effort in their own professional development.

In this type of self-directed learning, is the manager’s role really that important? Or can workplace learning succeed without the intervention of managers and supervisors?

Research

It’s true that learners can access and engage with learning content anytime, anywhere. And self-motivation goes a long way toward an employee being successful in a workplace learning program. But that’s not the end-all be-all of learning. Managers still matter.  

While managers may not deliver learning content, they can play a critical role in revisiting and reinforcing that content. In fact, a recent analysis of the available research found that, yes, managers are critical to the success of workplace training – specifically because they are in a unique position to coach their employees throughout the learning process.

Just how critical is a manager’s role? One study out of the UK found that when a manager was directly involved in their employee’s professional development, the positive impact of workplace learning doubled.

Interestingly, coaching is not only critical to the success of employees but to the manager’s success as well. A study conducted by a team of international researchers looked at whether managerial success and coaching were related. They analyzed a number of studies on manager performance and found that “truly effective managers and managerial leaders are those who embed effective coaching into the heart of their management practice.”

In other words, coaching is a two-way street: It helps both managers and their employees succeed. So what specifically can managers do to be effective coaches and help their employees accelerate their careers?

How managers facilitate learning

A study out of CQ University in Australia surveyed employees within a large government agency after they’d participated in a professional development course. The employees were asked a series of questions to assess how important their manager was in supporting the course and putting their new skills to work on the job.

First, they found where managers were most critical to the learning process: after a course or learning event is completed. While upfront support for workplace learning is important, a manager’s contribution really kicks in after the learning content is delivered.

The researchers then surveyed the employees about what specific manager behaviors helped them solidify and apply their newly learned skills. Below are the most important behaviors identified in the study.

Opportunity to practice new skills.

Practice is key to honing new skills and changing old behaviors. Managers can provide opportunities for practice on the job or through training sessions, where learners can try things out in a pressure-free environment and receive feedback.

Openness to change.

When meaningful learning happens, positive change can occur. Perhaps a learner can now take on more responsibility. Or lead a new project. Or suggest a new way of doing things based on what they’ve learned.

The important thing for managers is to demonstrate that they are open to change and new ideas. When learners develop new skills, they bring more value to the organization. Managers need to recognize what their employees can contribute, give them new challenges that harness their growing abilities and support them through the process.  

Mentoring and feedback.

According to the study, mentoring is perhaps the most important coaching behavior a manager can adopt. Taking the time to meet with employees and discuss new learning topics provides clarity and allows a manager to teach from his or her own experience. Mentorship gives learners constructive, individualized feedback that can make the difference between a learner adopting a new behavior and abandoning it.

As the research stated, “Regular meetings with supervisors afforded the opportunity for mentoring and encouragement. Participants valued timely feedback ‘along the way’, because it developed self-awareness, confidence, and the opportunity to correct undesired behaviours.”

Key takeaways

Coaching helps everyone succeed.

When a manager commits to coaching their employee, it not only helps the employee lock in what they’ve learned. It also greatly increases the manager’s effectiveness as a leader. And if managerial coaching can double the returns on training, as the research suggests, it could be a enormous loss not to make it a key piece of your organization’s training program.    

Post-learning support is key.

Sure, learners can go off on their own and take an e-learning course. But learning doesn’t stop there. For new skills to take hold, learners must gain a deeper understanding of the training material and work through any challenges along the way. This step of the learning process is where managers can deliver the most value. Managers’ understanding of employees’ day-to-day experiences puts them in a unique position. They can ensure that learners have opportunities to practice and refine new skills, and determine how best to put those skills to use.

Mentorship helps lock in learning.

As discussed in the research, the importance of mentorship and coaching can’t be overstated. Every learner, no matter the situation, benefits from feedback and support. When managers help learners through challenges to get the most out of workplace learning, they and their team succeed.


Sources

Hamlin, R. G., et al. (2006). Coaching at the heart of managerial effectiveness: A cross-cultural study of managerial behaviours. Human Resource Development International, 9(3), 305-331.

Beattie, R. S. (2006). Line managers and workplace learning: Learning from the voluntary sector. Human Resource Development International, 9(1), 99-119.

Lancaster, S., et al. (2013). Supervisor behaviours that facilitate training transfer. Journal of Workplace Learning, 25(1), 6-22

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