How to get skeptical employees to buy into workplace learning
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How to get skeptical employees to buy into workplace learning

Workplace learning is an extremely valuable employee benefit. But not everyone sees it that way. Some employees will be skeptical of training. Perhaps they’ve seen it fail before. Maybe they think they’re too busy to make time for it. Or maybe they’re just resistant to change.

Whatever the reason, it’s difficult for a skeptical employee to get any real value out of training. Their negative mindset will almost guarantee that they almost certainly won’t put in the requisite time and effort, which will in turn lead to failure. Which just perpetuates the employee’s belief that training doesn’t work.

So how can you convince such employees to change their attitude and buy in to workplace learning? Recent research may provide the answer.

The research

Researchers from Stanford University wanted to explore the effect of negative attitudes on learning. Specifically, they wanted to see if an intervention could both change learners’ attitudes and improve their performance.

Naturally, they chose a polarizing subject: math.

The study included over 1,000 students, divided into two groups: the experimental group and the control. The experimental group was enrolled in a free online course over three months. The course was intended to improve participants’ understanding of math as well as their attitude toward the subject.

The control group, meanwhile, simply took their regular classes.

A growth mindset

An important piece of the experimental group’s online course was to instill in the students a growth mindset — the belief that they could improve at math if they work hard and challenge themselves. This concept was layered throughout the lessons in the course.

At the end of the course, both groups of students were given a math assessment. It should come as no surprise that the experimental group — which received additional math instruction — performed better than the control group. The most striking results, however, were related to the experimental group’s changes in attitude.

The students’ belief that they could improve and learn math at a high level (i.e., adopting the growth mindset) went up nearly 50 percent. Their fear and discomfort of math dropped significantly. And their belief that math was an interesting and creative subject went up over 30 percent. What’s more, their teachers found that, after taking the course, students from the experimental group participated more in math class, were more engaged in the material and more persistent in solving problems.

For such a brief intervention, the study showed a significant change in participants’ beliefs and behavior. As the head researcher stated, “The online course changed students’ ideas about mathematics and their futures in the subject. This is the first online class that has had such an impact.”

Beliefs can be hard to change

The participants in this study were coached on how to change their beliefs about learning and given the tools to learn effectively. This approach can be applied to any subject and in any organization. Many other studies show the effects of instilling a growth mindset, and this research proves that it can be achieved through an online course just as successfully as an in-person intervention.

That’s all well and good. But when certain people make up their mind, they don’t tend to change it easily. So what if you’re dealing with a particularly stubborn or resistant learner?

Another recent study — this one out of Princeton — suggests an additional tool for turning around such employees: Spin their incorrect belief into a positive fact.

For example, let’s say a particularly negative learner tells his manager, “Workplace training doesn’t work. I’ve seen it fail before and I’m not interested in doing it again.” According to the research, an effective response could be, “You’re right, workplace learning doesn’t work — if it’s not done properly. But we have implemented a training program here that has been effective for many of your coworkers and will work for you too.”

By redirecting their false belief into an accurate, positive statement, the research suggests that the employee will be far less likely to argue or dismiss your message. It’s a simple approach that has powerful results.


Here are some recommendations for how to apply the research in your organization:

Mindset matters

If learners enter the training process with a negative or skeptical attitude, they will almost surely fail. It’s important for learners to engage in training with the belief that they can grow and improve. Consider presenting success stories of the training program. Show how it’s improved results or helped employees achieve their goals. Also, consider having an employee who’s excelled because of training speak to your learners — this could work for new hires as well as skeptical employees. Hearing information directly from a peer resonates.

Discuss the growth mindset

…especially during challenging moments. For employees who may be stuck in their habits or routines, infusing the growth mindset into the training program could have significant results. While change can be uncomfortable at times, it is possible. Challenge and struggle are natural parts of the learning experience and employees will benefit if they stay positive and put in the effort.

Redirect negative beliefs into positive facts

If an employee has a negative or erroneous belief about workplace learning, use the approach from the Princeton study to open their mind and, with the help of the other takeaways from this article, hopefully change it. Connect their erroneous belief to a true fact.



Boaler, J., et al. (2018). Changing students’ minds and achievement in mathematics: The impact of a free online student course. Frontiers in Education, 3(26) 1-7.

Vlasceanu, M., & Coman, A. (2018). Mnemonic accessibility affects statement believability: The effect of listening to others selectively practicing beliefs. Cognition, 180, 238-245.

1 Comment

  • Harry Koolen says:

    Stephen — Very topical Insights posting; thank you. I look forward to reading the original research. One important caveat to the research conclusions and to your recommendations is this – If the manager / supervisor holds a fixed mindset towards learning in the domain of the training, that will usually rub off on the employee. In such a case, the manager’s efforts to motivate the employee to adopt more of a growth mindset towards the training will lack credibility and seem disingenuous in the eyes of the employee.

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