How to motivate employees to invest in workplace learning
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How to motivate employees to invest in workplace learning

As a learning professional, you know all the benefits of workplace learning like the back of your hand. For those of us who think about the topic daily, the advantages of a learning organization – and how it benefits employees – are plain as day.

But some employees may not see things so clearly. They may be reluctant to participate in a workplace learning program for a variety of reasons. They could see it as a waste of time. Or, they may not understand why they need to learn certain topics. Or they may fear stepping out of their comfort zone and risking failure to learn something new.

It’s natural to have some employees who aren’t exactly gung ho about making a meaningful investment in workplace learning. So the question is: What’s the best thing you can do to change their minds? Turns out, research suggests you should outsource it.

The research

Psychologists from Michigan State University studied how best to motivate college students before a new course. They did so by conducting an experiment over an entire college semester. Specifically, they wanted to see whose message would be more motivational and inspiring to students – instructors’ or peers’. They also wanted to see how that might affect students’ performance in the course.

The course was one that all education majors at the college are required to take. It could easily inspire the question: Why do I have to learn this?

To see if a motivational message would have any affect on student performance in the course, researchers divided the students into three groups – instructor, peer and the control group.

Before starting the course, the instructor group received an inspirational message for why the course was important. The peer group received the same exact message, but delivered by a peer who had supposedly taken the course and found it beneficial (but was really a paid actor). The control group didn’t get an inspirational message of any kind.

The results

At the end of the course, the group that experienced the peer message performed the best. They wrote a more effective final essay about the course and their final grade was 6% higher on average than the instructor group. Interestingly, the control group – who received no motivational message – also had a higher final grade than the instructor group.

Asked about the results, one of the researchers stated, “This gives support to the idea that, motivationally, the fact that instructors control grades, tell the students what do to, and so on, may be working against their efforts to increase their students’ appreciation of why the class is important.”


Here are some recommendations for applying the research and utilizing the motivational power of peer messaging.

Schedule a peer-to-peer discussion for new employees. Based on the research, part of the orientation to your organization’s workplace learning program should be conducted by peers – employees who have benefited from training.

Consider arranging a meeting between new employees and an employee who has been with your organization for a year or so. Ask the more senior employee to share with new hires all the benefits of workplace learning and how it’s improved his or her career. The research suggests this will inspire new employees to invest in the training program.

Get peer validation for any difficult topic. Learning typically requires people to step out of their comfort zone and risk the possibility of failure or discomfort on their way to mastering a new skill. If you know that a particular topic will be challenging or particularly disruptive to some learners, arrange for a more experienced peer to talk with them before you conduct the training session.

The experienced learner will be able to recount their own temporary discomfort during the learning process. They can reveal how the training benefited them and their career. In short, how the hard work was worth it.

Ask peers to assist struggling learners. If you notice a learning struggling to acquire a new skill – or perhaps just having a hard time in general during training – ask a peer to impart words of advice and encouragement. The study suggests that this motivational message and feedback will mean a lot more coming from a peer than an instructor or learning professional.


Shin, T. S., Ranellucci, J., & Roseth, C. J. (2017). Effects of peer and instructor rationales on online students’ motivation and achievement. International Journal of Educational Research, 82, 184-199.

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