Research: Why your employees put off training — and how to stop it
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Research: Why your employees put off training — and how to stop it

Employees have a lot of demands on their time: meetings; email; their actual job. Adding something else to the mix — namely, workplace learning — can feel daunting. In fact, “not enough time” is one of the most common excuses for putting off a workplace learning program.

But research suggests that when an employee procrastinates and puts off training, it’s not really an issue of time. It’s not laziness or obstinance either. Procrastination comes from a different place altogether.

The research

Think about a situation where you put off a task or project that you knew was important. Sure, you probably had other priorities that took up your time. But was it really because you couldn’t possibly find the time? Or was it because you didn’t feel like finding the time? 

This is procrastination – we know we’re putting something off, we know there will be consequences, we feel bad about it, and yet we do it anyway. Why?

Research into procrastination reveals it’s actually a way to cope with negative emotions around a task – typically emotions like anxiety, frustration and self-doubt. So, for example, if employees feel anxious or insecure about training, they will likely choose to put it off. It’s simply a pushing away of the negative emotions associated with the task. “If I don’t take the training, then I won’t feel anxiety about failing at it.” But the more we put off a task, the more negative emotions are associated with it. It becomes a negative feedback loop.

Procrastination is also a perfect example of a cognitive bias that we all share: prioritizing short-term needs over long-term ones. We sacrifice tomorrow’s benefits for today’s comfort. And this difference between how we perceive the present and the future is even more dramatic than you might think.

Researchers at NYU asked participants to think about their future selves while in an MRI machine that monitored their brain activity. The researchers found that, for many participants, “thinking about the future self elicited neural activation patterns that were almost exactly like patterns that were associated with thinking about another person.” So we actually think about our future selves almost like a stranger – it’s their problem, not mine.

How to overcome procrastination

So if procrastination is really based on negative emotions and because we think a stranger will suffer the consequences, how can you help your employees defeat it? It’s not easy, but research has an answer: By giving them the tools to overcome their negativity.

If you think of the negative emotions associated with procrastination as self-criticism, then the antidote is what researchers call self-compassion. Self-compassion asks that you take a kind and accepting view toward your challenges and failings instead of fixating on the negatives.

For example, while a negative procrastinator might think, “I feel anxious about training since I’ll probably fail, so I’m going to avoid it,” a self-compassionate person would think, “Training can help me in my career and if I fail at first, that’s okay. I’ll improve with time.”

Researchers at Bishop’s University in Canada surveyed over 750 people regarding their attitudes and behaviors regarding procrastination and self-compassion. They found that people who scored high on self-compassion very rarely procrastinated. And they found the opposite was also true — those who scored low on self-compassion were frequent procrastinators.

So if your learners are putting off workplace learning, research suggests that they harbor negative emotions regarding training. Providing them with information about self-compassion and its positive effect on procrastination — as well as on overall motivation and positivity — could help them get engaged.

Recommendations

Here are some other suggestions based on the research that can help your learners overcome the root causes of procrastination and engage in workplace learning.

Create short steps forward.

Learners often have negative emotions associated with training because it appears intimidating and difficult. Workplace learning is a process, sure. But help learners focus on the single step in front of them instead of worrying about the entire journey.

Here are a few suggestions: Provide training in short bursts that don’t take up a lot of time. Give them access to e-learning material that they use anytime, anywhere. And celebrate the small accomplishments achieved by learners. It will motivate them and help engender positive feelings about the learning process instead of negative ones.

Reframe the problem.

If a learner is constantly putting off workplace learning, redirect their negative thoughts to the positive benefits of training. Instead of it being a difficult challenge, help learners see it as a way to grow their skills and further their career. Organizations can do this on a large scale by instituting a communications program where training success stories are shared and accomplishments are celebrated companywide.    

Provide mentorship.

Sometimes a learner needs help overcoming their self-doubt and fear. That’s one of the reasons why workplace learning works best when learners receive coaching and mentorship from a manager or leader. Individualized coaching and feedback can help a procrastinating learner put aside their fears and invest in training. When a learner is assured by a mentor that failure is part of the learning process, there’s not much left to be afraid of.


Sources

Hershfield, H. E. (2011). Future self‐continuity: How conceptions of the future self transform intertemporal choice. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1235(1), 30-43.

Sirois, F. and Pychyl, T. (2013) Procrastination and the priority of short-term mood regulation: Consequences for future self. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7(2), 115-127.

Sirois, F. (2014). Procrastination and stress: Exploring the role of self-compassion. Self and Identity, 13(2), 128-145.

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