Behavioral Learning Theory has no place in the workplace. Or so one would think based on current research. I recently came to this conclusion while conducting said research for a class I am taking in Executive Education. This conclusion is not based on Behavioral Learning as it pertains to other types of learned behaviors, rather, the use of this theory in adult learning design.
I assessed two gaps where adult learners in the workplace are set up to fail:
- Gap number 1: The adult learner has no previous experience with the knowledge or skill being studied, and little to no prior learning or instruction of the skill at hand.
- Gap number 2: The adult learner may not have received reinforcement in their academic history. Thus, their personal learning experience of traditional rewards and punishments might play a role in their motivation and engagement in the behavioral learning environment.
Adult Prior Knowledge
Many traditional assumptions about learning indicate that “learning behavior demonstrates the acquisition of knowledge or skills.”
This outdated mindset has been a consistent roadblock to developing a workplace model that meets both the needs of the employee and the bottom line of the business.
The individual must perceive the learning with its relevance to their role and the overall business strategy. For workplace learning to be successful, the two must go hand in hand.
The acquisition of workplace knowledge or skill is demonstrated by the performance of a function (e.g., sales), a task (e.g. answering customer phone calls in a timely manner) or a skill (e.g. ability to solve a technical problem).
Consider Captain “Sully” who safely landed the plane in the Hudson. While this is a dramatic example of performance skills, he never “learned” how to land a plane in a river. He learned many important functions, tasks and skills which he then applied to a critical situation. I would argue that positive or negative reinforcement played no role in his training. His performance was a result of both learning activities and practical experiences.
Previous “Learning” Experiences and Motivation
There are two important issues that impact the use of this Behavioral Theory in the workplace:
- The first lies in the employees past educational experiences in K-12 or post-secondary school. As an employee begins their workplace learning experience, they are often burdened by the conditioning of their past. If they were a successful student, this provides positive reinforcement, which may help their motivation for completing the learning experience. But if they have had a truly negative education history full of punishments and negative reinforcement, this could deal a crucial blow to their motivation.
- The second issue lies in certain research illustrating positive and negative reinforcement as unsuccessful approaches to workplace learning. Gallup found that almost 70% of Americans are actively disengaged in their work, costing the US economy billions of dollars annually (Gallup Poll, 2015). Employee engagement and retention is the second biggest business concern after leadership development.
Still, some of the most successful techniques I have witnessed in workplace learning development have involved incentives, bonuses and goal setting. This approach has been referred to as Management by Objectives (MBO) which became popular in the 1950’s. And the newest push for positive reinforcement, particularly as it relates to technology, is the awarding of badges.
Depending on the career learning experience of any given individual, including myself, the jury is still out as to whether or not these motivators and enforcers have a truly positive impact on workplace learning.
Still, from my experience as a Chief Learning Officer and Lifetime Learner, I will always see their merit as it pertains to the learning of my employees, my client’s employees, and myself.