Can we use training to motivate?

In my previous post, I showed a flowchart that could help you find the best solution to a performance problem. Thanks to your comments and questions, I’ve improved the chart to make clear two of my opinions:

  • Training is rarely the solution for low motivation
  • When training could help, it’s best to let learners become motivated through experience (decision-making scenarios) rather than preaching at them (presentations)

First, you might want to download the revamped flowchart. Here’s how the motivation bit looks now:

Motivation section of the action mapping flowchart

I’ve added a new loop that sends you back to the main analysis node because low motivation is usually a side effect, not a core problem. It’s often caused by one of the other three problems in the chart.

  • Environment: High pressure, a poorly managed organizational change, user-hostile software, heavy-handed management … these can all lead to low motivation. Training is unlikely to help, unless you can train away the environmental problem, such as by improving managers’ skills.
  • Knowledge: If the employees who do the data-entry drudgery for the TPS reports don’t know the painful results of their screwups, they’ll be less motivated to avoid errors. For example, we could show them that a rejected TPS record can mean that a client doesn’t get the check she needs to buy medication. If this is included in the results of a branching scenario that we’re also using to practice entering TPS records, then I’d be willing to call it training. However, if it’s just a finger-wagging exhortation divorced from any application, it’s not training in my book.
  • Skills: If I don’t have the skill to quickly and painlessly parametize widgets, I will dislike having to parametize widgets. Give me training!

When low motivation can’t be blamed on anything else

I’ve heard several reports of “lazy” workers. “They just don’t want to do it,” the client says. “They don’t care.”

I’d still be tempted to look for external causes of their “laziness.” If we really can’t find a good reason, then managers or HR might need to step in.

If all of the above are impossible for some reason, then we could make an attempt like the one described under “knowledge” above: Create realistic scenarios that have them practice the skills that they’re doing half-heartedly and have the results show the effects of skipping steps or making errors. This can be tricky to do, since in a training situation the slackers are going to be on better behavior.

The traditional “training” solution to low motivation is to sit “learners” down in front of a presentation that tells them why they need to get on the ball, or to show them a video of a leader pontificating about how important it all is. This isn’t “training” in my increasingly persnickety definition — it’s a one-way presentation that involves zero application. It’s not an “activity” in the sense that I’m using in the flowchart.

Why do I limit motivating activities to “realistic simulations?”

now-youre-motivatedWhy not a multiple-choice fact check about the number of people who go without medication as a result of TPS errors? How about a drag-and-drop that ranks the importance of well-parametized widgets compared to other types of widgets?

I suggest avoiding these activities because they’re really just checks of short-term memory: “Can you remember the number 67 from the previous screen?”

What’s more important is whether learners can make the appropriate decisions in realistic situations. And what’s most memorable is when we make the same decision we usually make in real life but this time we see the consequences that are usually out of sight.

What do you think? Am I being too hardcore? Can fact checks be motivating? Or on the other hand, is it useless to try to affect motivation through any kind of training? Please add your thoughts to the comments.



  1. I am still learning a lot of the approaches outlined on the blog, but is there something geared towards learning new material – this flow chart focuses on why are they not doing it? Or do you still use it and simply answer in that case that obviously it is a knowledge issue since new skills are needed?

    • That’s exactly it, JA — if they’re faced with something brand new, like a new CRM system, then the biggest problem is very probably their lack of knowledge. In that case, you’ll go down that path to training design. However, even then it’s helpful to take a little time to consider other barriers to performance. For example, is the software being greeted enthusiastically, or is it replacing something that “worked just fine” and now people are resisting the new system? That would be an environmental / cultural problem to keep in mind and might inspire you to have people compare the procedure used in the new system with the procedure used in the old, so they can see for themselves how the new system will be easier in the end.

  2. Margaret.Long says:

    Fear of Learning – I think activities are definitely a big part of the answer to low motivation – something that I often find is a result of ‘fear of learning’ . A number of things seem to trigger this fear – being “sent on a course” can do it, because people haven’t necessarily bought in to the topic and may be worried about what they’ll be expected to do when they are back at their desks. Time and again I hear “It’s alright when I’m here with you, but it’s all different when I get back upstairs”. It can just be a confidence issue, but sometimes I find that it manifests when someone is convinced that they have a better way of doing it and don’t want anything to interfere with their approach – like inconvenient learning. My approach to this is to ask them to show their way and then have a discussion about it – sometimes they don’t see the whole picture and don’t appreciate that their method has flaws or disadvantages further down the line. This is where cleverly developed activities score highly – if you do the legwork and find really good real-life examples then the less confident gain confidence, the over confident see examples of where a different approach can score and the discussion that ensues often helps the retention of learning and the eventual transfer of skills. I don’t normally see pure lack of motivation, thank goodness, but it is always a sign of something amiss somewhere. Sadly it can also stem from a sense that the sponsor does not truly value the employee – either real or perceived. This can take a long time to fix, and is out of scope for most of us.

    • Margaret, I completely agree. Realistic activities can improve motivation by letting newbies practice in a safe place, improving their confidence, and by letting experienced people see for themselves that their approach isn’t always the best one. Thanks for your comment!

  3. The chart is a great job aid, thanks Cathy. In some situations, I think low motivation can come from learners who think they already know something, or know how to do something, and therefore see training as a waste of time.

    These situations often arise with compliance training (e.g. safety, anti-harassment) since so much of it seems to be common sense. In these situations, it might a good tactic to ferret out situations where the correct behaviors are not obvious, and build scenarios around these. But this can be a hard to do. For example, employees may know they should use ladders and not chairs to reach high places, but still use chairs for convenience. What then?

    • Robert, excellent question – how do you motivate learners to do the right thing when the wrong thing is easier? There are two approaches to this:

      1. Make the right thing easier. This could be as simple as placing ladders in an easily accessible location. This is a huge area ripe for design innovation irrespective of the industry or field. As human performance professionals, we need to look carefully at how we can make doing the right thing easier, whether it is software design, training supervisors to provide effective feedback (instead of vague platitudes), or arrangement of the physical environment. We should always be looking at ways to make doing the right thing easier. The results are more sustainable and usually a lot less expensive over the long haul. One lost time accident from a fall off a chair may be more expensive than an abundance of easily accessible ladders.

      2. Make the wrong thing harder. In compliance, this can be as ephemeral as social pressure. For instance, I have worked in areas where lock out/tag out was rigidly enforced by compelling social stigma for those who fail to observe good practice. You can just imagine how these scenarios would play out. Basically, avoiding the pain of getting caught doing it wrong was sufficient motivation to encourage good behavior. Social pressure is often very persistent, even when the pressure no longer applies. For instance, there are a number of safety practices that have been so deeply woven into my psyche that I am still on the lookout for trip hazards in the home and making sure I have not only turned off the lawnmower before clearing the blades, but also take the key out so no one can accidentally start it even though it’s patently obvious I’m right there.

      In a nutshell, until the pain of remaining the same exceeds the pain or discomfort of making the change, we can’t expect learners to be motivated. Or to look at it conversely, and more positively, until the pleasure of attending training exceeds the pleasure of not attending, learners aren’t likely to be very motivated to complete training.

      • Good suggestions Richard. Your examples fit into the “environment” solutions bucket rather than the “skills” one – and I think that’s appropriate in these situations where the learner already knows what to do and how to do it. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for the chart and follow-up.

    I agree that motivation is a tricky one to address, and it doesn’t fit well into a strict input/output vision of learning. I agree that training can’t fix a culture that enervates its employees, but I can recall some professional development trainings, back when I was a grade school teacher, that put an extra spring in my step for some while. Probably I was in need of some new skills, so that supports what you’re saying.

    My team has just finished an asynchronous e-learning course (for LSAT test prep) and we focused on creating a relationship between the student and teacher, despite the lack of a live person. I think this may motivate folks to stick with the course and care, and thus put what they’ve learned into action. (Thinking back to my own education, it was often the personal connection to teachers that motivated me, and I’d end up excelling in classes on topics that I would have otherwise categorized as annoying requirements.) That doesn’t mean that a motivating connection with a teacher leads to motivation outside of the classroom (e.g., I’m motivated to participate in your training, but I’m still not going to apply this outside of the training because my boss is a jerk/I’m underpaid), but it’s a start.

  5. Melanie Kazimir says:

    You are certainly not being too hardcore! I have observed that fact checks are not only non-motivating, but are in fact unmotivating! Be it only on a subconscious level, the learner feels disrespected by having been asked to further waste their time, as though the job they have to do isn’t boring enough. “Thank you for wasting yet another hour of my life!” As to your second question: no, it’s not useless to try to affect motivation through training, but my preachy soap box broken record is “respect for the learner is the number one priority”. I’m of the opinion that if the learner leaves the training with something meaningfull, they will feel their time was well spent and motivated to give something back, perhaps in the form of trying to follow procedure. So I completely agree with your post and let’s not add fuel to the already unmotivated fire.

  6. Thanks for clarifying the motivation part of the chart. As it now shows, it is helpful to distinguish between a general lack of motivation with one’s job due to one of other factors you mention, and the motivation to pay attention to the training and implement some portion of it into their job performance, as discussed by Margaret Long and others above.

    I’d categorize your “flowchart, plus the question ‘what do you think?’” falls into the category of training activity. It has certainly motivated me to think and to learn. In other cases such an activity could help alleviate a motivational issue of: “I don’t feel my input is valued,” or perhaps simply increase the likelihood of acceptance and implementation rather than solving an existing problem. And yet it is not strictly speaking a “realistic simulation.” It could however be classified as a realistic activity as you suggest in your response to Margaret.

    Thanks again for sharing this flowchart. It’s incredibly helpful.

  7. Fantastic post to get introduced to your blog! Your comment about providing realistic situations for training particularly resonates with me. I recently started a new job and was required to complete sexual harassment training. The training shared examples of appropriate action, then provided me with several scenarios requiring different levels of responses, as opposed to just a simple “Yes this is sexual harassment” or “No”. I found I paid much closer attention to the training and spent more time on my responses. It has also encourage great conversation with my colleagues. Opportunities for interaction and problem-solving are key to empowering an individual in their learning. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I am moving from teaching children to traching adults. What you’re saying is a no brainer for anyone that teaches children. Learning should be hands-on,relevant and fun.

  9. Great post. Not at all too hardcore. In my opinion “training” is not a solution to motivation. You need a two way street of communication. An interactive opportunity for the learner to engage gives them a chance to motivate themselves. This why I would agree with you in saying that scenarios and simulations are the best option because it provides them perspective.

  10. Your elearning explaining is very nice and you put your point step by step

  11. Peter Simonsen says:

    Great post, Cathy. I agree with most of your views on training and motivation, and I don’t think they are too hardcore. Not the way they are described here. You leave a door open to realistic simulations, so motivation is still possible :-). But I couldn’t agree more on the (lack of) motivational effects of a corporate presentation – however flashy, sexy or expensive it may be.

    Your comments on low motivation caused by organisational problems and/or lack of managerial or leadershop skills, and what could be done about it, are probably true. At least in terms of stand-alone elearning. I have however had some positive experiences with facilitated elearning, where managers were included in the development of the course and then trained as facilitators. The managers then facilitated 30-45 minjutes of elearning during a full day workshop. Thereby they were helped/forced to 1) take on a leadership role, 2) participate in a dialogue with their employees during the course, and 3) take a critical look at their own motivation. The course itself would then focus partly on skills and knowledge, and partly on scenarios that would set off dialogues on values, expectations, aspirations etc.

  12. hi….
    I do agree with your blog post. I think training is a must to the motivate the workforce. You came up with the problems that lead to low motivation in the organziations.

  13. Motivation is a complex construct. Understanding how to consistently get the most out of people is difficult. Yet, research in adult learning has shown that adults need to work on projects that are authentic and will yield some new knowledge or skill that will further their own personal goals, interests, and curiosities.

  14. Yes as Basque Country SPAIN Continuingt Training Specialist I can assure that training helps the employee to get job security and job satisfaction. It improves eployees morale .The more satisfied the employee is and the greater is his morale, the more he will contribute to organizational success, and there will be a decrese in employee absenteeism and turnover