Your rock star employees don’t need training, right? Wrong
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Your rock star employees don’t need training, right? Wrong

It’s easy to see why your organization would conduct workplace learning for low and average performers. These employees have discernable room to grow and develop. But what about high performers?

On some level, high performers have already harnessed their potential and tasted success. They meaningfully contribute to the organization in a tangible, measurable way. Best to just stay out of their way and let them do their thing, right?

Well, research from the Center for Creative Leadership suggests that your rock star employees are uniquely in need of workplace learning. Why? Because their past successes can lead to future failure.

The research

Researchers from the Center for Creative Leadership, in addition to conducting their own studies, looked at decades of research regarding people fulfilling their potential in the workplace. They wanted to find insights into why certain people succeeded while others failed to live up to expectations.

A key finding: A positive, open attitude towards learning could make all the difference. Research suggests that the desire and ability to learn in the workplace can be a stronger predictor of success than IQ or other traditional measures of potential.

In one study conducted at AT&T, employees who were originally evaluated as “low potential” ended up receiving more promotions on average than “high potential” employees – if those “low potential” employees embraced training and development opportunities more.

So what about the high potential employees? Why would employees with a track record of success dismiss learning opportunities to their own detriment?

Several studies suggest that high potential employees who’ve achieved at a high level in the past often decide that they don’t need to keep learning – in their mind, they’ve got it all figured out. As a result, they become victims of their own success, relying on what made them successful without continuing to develop their skills for the future.

As the study states, “Failures are usually not learning new things.”

The importance of agility

As noted by the researchers, the failure to embrace learning is also a failure to acknowledge the inevitability of change. No matter what industry you’re in, you’re bound to witness strategies, methods and/or processes change – and sometimes at a rapid pace. In the modern workplace, flexibility and adaptability are required. High performers who think they can continue to do the same things the same way and maintain the same level of success are in for a rude awakening.

A successful employee is often one who is prepared for change by committing to learning, flexibility and growth. The study refers to this important quality as “learning agility.”

The researchers define “learning agility” by breaking it down into four distinct factors.

  1. People agility – The employee knows their own strengths and weaknesses. They can also empathize with others and embrace collaboration.
  2. Results agility – The employee can adapt to changing conditions and priorities. Can deliver meaningful results by working well with team members.
  3. Mental agility – The employee enjoys learning for learning’s sake. He or she is intellectually curious and relish solving problems.
  4. Change agility – The employee is adaptable and likes seeking out new, improved ways of doing things.

Instead of viewing change as a negative, employees high in “learning agility” welcome new experiences and see change as an opportunity to learn. Again, learning culture is key to the research findings. Regardless of past performance or perceived potential, an employee is generally more successful when he or she recognizes the importance of continuous learning and enjoys developing new skills.


Below are some recommendations based on the research that can help your organization develop or enhance “learning agility” in all your employees.

Provide feedback.

Learners often assume they are doing things the right way unless they hear otherwise. By providing timely feedback, either through learning sessions or through managers, learners can identify weaknesses and work to correct them.

Managers can illustrate what needs to improve but they also provide critical coaching sessions to help show employees how they can get better once an area for improvement has been identified.

Reflect an openness to change.

Learners may not strive for positive change without signals from organizational leaders that change is indeed possible. So communicate a willingness to change and adapt as new ideas come to the surface.

For example, push learners to critically analyze the way they or their team does its work. By challenging processes and inefficiencies, employees can brainstorm new and better ways of doing things. This drive for improvement and change will keep learners “agile” in their approach to their work.

Consider learning plans for all employees.

Help employees create annual learning goals – similar to performance goals – in order to keep learners focused on developing new skills. This will also help create a more holistic learning culture, where growth is fostered and supported by the organization and therefore expected from employees.

Learning goals will ensure that all employees are given access to development opportunities and can also prevent high performers from believing that development isn’t required of them.

Source – Lombardo, M. M. & Eichinger, R. W. (2000). High potentials as high learners. Human Resource Management, 39(4), 321-329.

1 Comment

  • Harry Koolen says:

    Very timely posting. I have encountered this phenomenon many times with training participants who complain, “Why do I have to do this course? I should be back at my desk making money.” There can be several factors at work here. For example, this type of attitude can be evidence of a fixed mindset [Dweck, 2007]. The best example of someone with a high level of learning agility that I ever encountered was a mid-career banker who observed to me, “I’ve been in this business for fifteen years. But I don’t feel that I have 15 years of experience; rather, my attitude is that I have fifteen times one year of experience.” Thinking back to one of your microlearning videos, learning plans should include not just training goals, but should also include implementation intentions to support each training / personal development goal.

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