Training that works (hint: motivation matters more than you think)

Key points:

  • Cognitive ability matters for training success, but motivation matters more!
  • Motivation is likely to be higher when trainees believe in themselves (self-efficacy) and when they value the benefits that a training brings (valence).
  • Training works when people learn, then apply what they learned to their job and their performance improves.
  • Skill acquisition and self-efficacy will likely lead to training material being transferred to the job.

If you are reading this, it means you already know training has the power to unlock and develop employee’s potential. Many organizations are also aware of this, just pay attention to how much money is being invested in employees’ development – we are talking about billions per year only in the United States (Salas et al. 2012). Having an educated workforce is a clear advantage in today’s competitive market.

We tend to assume that a well designed program, a popular method, or the newest technologies guarantee training effectiveness. We take for granted other factors that are as, or even more important. Have you ever asked yourself how employees think or feel before they start training?

The Science behind Training Motivation

Motivation can help employees make the most out of a program. Training motivation is defined as “the direction, intensity, and persistence of learning-directed behavior in training contexts”. Colquitt, LePine and Noe (2000) reviewed and merged 20 years of literature on the topic into a solid and trustworthy meta-analysis  in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Their aim was to build a model that would integrate the results of hundreds of research papers on training motivation. There are many factors that come into play, such as individual characteristics (e.g. personality, age) or aspects of a situation (e.g. climate, manager or colleague support). This summary will only focus on the elements you can leverage for higher  motivation to learn, leaving aside factors affecting motivation at the individual and organizational level.

One of the points authors explored was the effect of motivation to learn on training effectiveness. Training works when (1) people learn, (2) apply what they learned to their job and (3) performance improves. Let’s focus first on the learning part. According to the authors, trainees take away and experience four learning outcomes:

How do people achieve these learning outcomes?

Intelligence matters… but motivation matters more!

The meta-analysis reveals that how smart you are determines the effectiveness of training only up to a certain extent. But what happens when you add a pinch of motivation? Results showed that, taken together, cognitive ability and motivation account for a bigger proportion of learning outcomes than cognitive ability alone.

Also, motivation is moderately associated with all learning outcomes while intelligence does not have any influence on reactions. This means that the more the trainer motivates trainees, the better their reactions, increasing the possibilities of everybody bringing back positive vibes from the training sessions.

Overall, results do not mean that one is better than the other. Participants’ cognitive abilities are indeed important, but you can’t do anything about them. Instead, there are more chances to maximize training success for everyone if you explicitly consider motivation to learn while designing, implementing and evaluating your training program.

How can we generate motivation to learn?

Well… the bad news is that up until now there is no recipe we can follow to magically bake a motivated workforce when it comes to training. The good news is that this meta-analysis can give us some hints of what ingredients to consider when it comes to increasing training motivation.

Research shows that self-efficacy and valence may motivate people to do their best in training. Self-efficacy is the belief that one has what it takes to achieve a specific goal, or in this case the training objectives. Valence is the value one gives to training’s outcomes, either because they are useful or rewarding. The higher a trainees’ level of self efficacy and valence, the higher the motivation to learn. So why not leveraging these two elements if you know that they may increase the chances of making your training effective?

From the training room to the job

Once trainees achieve learning outcomes, what guarantees a program’s long term success? The next step would be to apply learning outcomes to the job (also known as transfer). Not surprisingly, out of the four learning outcomes only skill acquisition and self-efficacy are associated to the use of more training content on the job. Contrarily to a common quick fix, if participants liked the training or not don’t matter much for transfer. If you want to measure the success of the training at this stage, ditch the smile-sheets!

Takeaways for your practice

So, if you want to make sure you get the best value for money on your training you now know that motivation to learn is an important factor to keep in mind.  But motivating employees is not always easy, is it?… Here are a couple of ideas you might want to consider:

Do a training needs assessment.
This will allow you to identify real problems, target the right employees and competencies that need to be improved. Make sure training addresses real organizational needs, don’t do it “just because”.

Consider your communication strategy.

-Before training: take more time to create a clear and effective training proposal.

  • Emphasize why the training will be useful and what employees can get out of it (this might help increase levels of valence).
  • Help trainees believe in themselves! Let them know that you believe they have what it takes to complete the training, tell the trainer to give frequent and clear feedback, don’t teach the most difficult tasks at the beginning of the training (this might help raise their levels of self-efficacy).

-During training: make sure to get employees’ feedback on how they feel about the training. Encourage or make sure someone is there to give them support and keep reinforcing both levers (valence and self-efficacy).

Questions for practice

-How do employees respond to training in your organization?

-Are they enthusiastic or do they see it like a “waste of time”?

Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this article. We found that its design is moderately appropriate to demonstrate causal effects. Therefore, the claim that motivation increases training effectiveness has a moderate (80%) trustworthiness level. This means that there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for these results are possible, including random effects.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

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Colquitt, J. A., LePine, J. A., & Noe, R. A. (2000). Toward an Integrative Theory of Training Motivation : A Meta-Analytic Path Analysis of 20 Years of Research, 85(5), 678–707.

You can find the original article here

Salas, E., Tannenbaum, S. I., Kraiger, K., & Smith-jentsch, K. A. (2012). The Science of Training and Development in Organizations : What Matters in Practice. 

You can find the original article here

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  1. Antonio

    It’s surprising the amount of businesses that fall into the trap of not taking motivation seriously as a means of improving the performance of their workforce and therefore the business itself.

    Great insight on how to improve workers performance through motivation!

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