Look for ways to give trainees choices. Reason: Studies show that performance improves when people have choices, even small ones.

In one notable experiment, students were given an anagram-solving test:

  • There were six piles of word puzzles on various topics (animals, family, food, et al.) and various colored markers.
  • One set of students was allowed to choose the color of marker and which pile of anagrams to solve.
  • A second group was given no choice. They were told which set of anagrams to solve and which color marker to use.

Students kept going
Results: Students who were allowed to choose completed twice as many anagrams as those who were given no choice.

And during free time afterward, the students who were given choices spent three times as much time continuing to solve anagrams on their own, compared with the no-choice group.

Conclusion: Choice not only improved performance during the work period; it also triggered intrinsic motivation afterward.

“[C]hildren did better and worked longer when they were able to exercise personal choice,” the researchers said. “The moment anyone else told them what to do, their performance and subsequent motivation dropped dramatically.”

Yes, fangs help …
Numerous studies have confirmed this same effect, with adjustments for maturity, across age groups. We’re more engaged when we have some choice and some control over the task.

That’s true even when the choice itself – for example, a red marker vs. a blue marker – is seemingly trivial.

As a trainer working with adults, you can use the power of choice to boost engagement and intrinsic motivation.

Here’s an example from real life: A company’s safety professionals wanted to improve personal-protective equipment compliance for their bridge-repair crew. Specifically, they wanted their crews wearing hard hats, earplugs, and respirators on the job.

Of course, the workers weren’t given a choice as to whether to wear their PPE or not.

But the safety professionals found other ways to incorporate choice into the training.

For exmple, during the PPE safety training, the trainers showed workers various types of equipment they could choose from.

Then they went even further, offering workers opportunities to customize the equipment. For example, one worker applied a decal depicting fangs to the respirator mouthpiece, added Frankenstein-like bolts to the ear plugs, and painted his hard hat to resemble the helmet of his favorite football team.

Result: Greater enthusiasm during PPE training, and greater PPE compliance (i.e., intrinsic motivation) during the job.

The same principles can be applied to other types of training as well.

For example, if you’re training people on how to use new spreadsheet software, let them decide what the column headings should say, or which colors to use in charts.

Ways to offer choice
How can you balance mandatory elements of training while offering workers the powerful element of choice?

Here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Closed choices work. Sometimes trainers limit choice in the name of efficiency: They don’t want people spending a lot of time trying to decide what to do. Closed choices are a good compromise: “Would you rather train over lunch or meet in the conference room?” is better than “Where should we hold our meeting?”

2. Small choices count. As the research shows, choices don’t have to be earth-shattering to be effective. Administrative issues such as time, location, break times and the like all create opportunities to add choice and a sense of control.

3. Sometimes you can create a humorous or dramatic subtext to a session. Say people can choose what piece of candy they want as a reward during training. If you include something silly (will someone pass on the Snickers and take the pack of Sno-balls?), you can add a little fun to the session.

4. Let people personalize their approach to the job. Not everyone works the same way; when possible, allow people to adapt learning to their personality. For example, let the sales trainee come up with the precise wording of a cold-call opening.

Source: Ivengar, Sheena, et al, “Rethinking the Value of Choice: A Cultural Perspective on Intrinsic Motivation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1999, Vol. 76, No. 3, Pp. 349-365.

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