Leading employee learning: Encouragers vs. dictators
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Leading employee learning: Encouragers vs. dictators

It’s somewhat axiomatic — and not very helpful — to assert that organizational leadership affects employee learning. Of course it does. But how?

Three variables top the list. Leaders can:

  1. View employee learning as something that takes time away from the job, or as something that helps employees do their jobs better.
  2. Provide learning opportunities that are interesting and attractive, or dull and repetitive. (There’s still a lot of the latter out there in the learning-scape.)
  3. Model a consistent learning orientation — or not.

Beyond these variables, however, recent research points out a big leadership influence on employee learning that you may not have considered.

Learning orientations

Chinese researchers at university business schools in Beijing and Chengdu looked into the question of how leaders’ coaching behaviors affected employees’ attitudes toward job-related learning. They identified what they considered two prevalent coaching behaviors: “Encourage to explore,” where the leader encourages employees to learn more about their jobs and try new approaches, and “guide to learn,” where the leader dictates what learning employees will get and closely monitors their learning activities and results.

The researchers administered questionnaires to each of the 334 employees involved in the study, and separate questionnaires to each of these employees’ immediate supervisors. The questionnaires for the supervisors aimed to determine to what extent they displayed the ‘encourage to explore” attitude or the “guide to learn” attitude. Those for the employees aimed to find out how eager the employees were to learn new job-relevant content and techniques.

Once the results were in, the researchers found that employees working for “explore” managers reported a uniformly positive attitude toward learning. For those working for “guide” managers, the results were more nuanced: They suggested that a moderate amount of dictation and monitoring had a positive impact on learning orientation, but that past a certain point, this approach turned negative and discouraged learning.

Showing confidence

It’s not hard to imagine the reasons for these results. Leaders who encourage employees to explore are showing confidence in them, and expressing an expansive attitude toward learning as a good thing in itself. Those who look over employees’ shoulders too much as they learn are perceived as disempowering them.

So based on the research, what does an optimal coaching approach to employee learning look like? A leader may want to:

  • Make employees aware of a range of options for learning, and let them choose
  • Ask employees afterward what options they chose, and how useful they were
  • Guide employees who aren’t satisfied with their initial learning experience to other resources, and
  • Monitor all employees’ results once the learning experience has concluded

This blog entry is based on the following research study: Liu, W. and Xiang, S. (2020) The Effect of Leaders’ Coaching Behaviors on Employee Learning Orientation: A Regulatory Focus Perspective.” Frontiers in Psychology 11:543282.

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