The best ways to delegate tasks aren’t always straightforward. Your team members are unique. They have different abilities and distinct approaches to work.
We all work with team members who do things differently, but that doesn’t make their approach wrong. We may realize they work better than we do. And while that stings, it’s also thrilling!
We must learn the best ways to delegate tasks to discover what our teams can do. We must also determine when best to do those tasks. While it may be an uncomfortable process, it will be worthwhile when we get excellent results and teams that accomplish things beyond our wildest expectations.
First, let’s unpack what we’re discussing to ensure we’re all on the same page. Delegation is the process of assigning tasks to team members. There are many reasons to delegate work, such as to establish equal workloads or a specific task is better suited for a certain team member.
“You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”
You get more done when you delegate because other people are working alongside you. Your team gets more done in less time.
Knowing when and how to delegate makes us better leaders as our team members learn and grow. Delegation helps build skills and a sense of pride among team members. Happy team members with high levels of job satisfaction tend to stay with you longer and accomplish more at work.
Why is delegation important?
Delegating work serves two critical functions. First, it lets us be more productive as leaders. When we delegate tasks, our time and energy are free for other things.
Second, delegation shows team members that we trust them to do important work. It gives them pride in what they do and makes them feel vital to our overall mission and goals.
Unfortunately, it can be challenging to step back and get a big-picture perspective of the work and who should do what. We have to take the time to think. We need to look at the scope of work and consider which tasks fit which team members best.
That’s how we delegate effectively and ensure the project is completed at the highest level.
What are the benefits of delegation?
There are many benefits of delegation for both leaders and teams. It may seem like the best reason to delegate is for productivity’s sake (and that’s a solid reason), but some wellness and growth opportunities also come with it.
Lighter workload and less burnout potential
Everyone is susceptible to burnout, including the leadership team at any organization. Burnout is emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion from ongoing stress and overwork. It causes people to feel cynical, unmotivated, and detached from their work.
Burnout can make even the best team member have extreme challenges at work. You don’t want it for yourself or your team.
Delegation can help prevent burnout from setting in while also creating a less stressful workload. It helps everyone on a team feel empowered and engaged by connecting them with the work they’re most likely to enjoy and find meaningful.
The saying “Many hands make light work” is true. What might feel like an endless to-do list to one person can be managed easily by many. The great thing about delegating is that you can still get stuff done while getting back some of your time.
You don’t have to work overtime and miss out on things in life. You hired your team for a reason, after all. You also aren’t burning the candle at both ends, always feeling tired and overwhelmed.
You can recharge and reclaim some of your energy. You’ll be more enthusiastic and creative when you have mental and emotional space.
Increases efficiency and productivity
You know what it’s like to be overwhelmed. You have a lot to do, and you know everyone is waiting for you. Pretty soon, you’re holding the team back because you can’t physically do everything that needs to be done in a day.
We’ve all been there at some point in our careers.
A project can suffer when one person has too many tasks to complete. If one person is responsible for too many things, that person will bottleneck the workflow, creating delays and all-around frustration.
Delegating gets the work done faster and more efficiently. Team members down the pipeline aren’t waiting for one stressed-out person to complete tasks so they can do their part. No one feels like anyone else is holding them up.
Empowers your team
You hired each member for a reason. They were the right fit for the role you needed filled. They had the skills to bring something unique to the table and thrive at the organization. You felt like they had something your team needed.
Failing to delegate undoes all of these positives by stifling team members.
Team members can doubt they belong when we don’t delegate and act like we must do everything independently. It makes them think we don’t trust them to do the work or don’t think they can. They may even feel like they’re just filling a slot instead of really contributing something.
Delegating shows our teams that we trust their abilities and judgment. It helps them feel valued and respected. Delegation empowers them to use their skills, creativity, and knowledge to excel at work, which means we all win.
Makes room for skill development
There’s no training quite like on-the-job training, and there’s no substitute for the satisfaction of learning something new or discovering a unique way to solve a problem. When you delegate, you free your team to experience these feelings and develop professionally.
Assigning new, challenging tasks puts your team in a position to think for themselves and build new skills. It also lets you create a team who can handle complex work, which is invaluable when you get big projects or need to promote someone.
Why leaders don’t delegate
Delegation clearly has a lot of benefits, so why don’t we all do it or do it more? Why do some leaders seem overwhelmed while their team waits for more to do or longs for more challenging assignments?
In the book, “How to Be a Great Boss,” Gino Wickman and René Boer write about the importance of letting go of the vine. The metaphor goes something like this: If you are swinging Tarzan-style from vine to vine in the jungle, you can only move forward if you let go of the vine you’re holding to grab the next one.
We have to do the same thing as leaders. We can only move forward if we let go of certain tasks and free up our time and energy to do the things only we can do. We can’t swing the business forward if we’re still hanging onto that last vine.
As the author wrote,
“To go up, you must first let go.”
It seems so obvious, right? So why don’t we let go? Yes, those words sound scary, but the alternative is frightening too.
When leaders don’t delegate, it’s usually for one of these reasons:
- They lack trust. Sometimes we don’t trust our teams to do the work as well as they should or as we would. That second concern may be valid. There’s a reason we’re in leadership, after all. But it’s our job as leaders to develop our teams and elevate their work. If we never trust them to do the work, how will they learn?
- They fear losing control. Some leaders need control or worry others will drop the ball if they’re not involved in every detail of the work. Delegating doesn’t erode authority, and it’s impossible to control everything. If you must, review the final product before it goes public the first few times you delegate a job to the team. Give them feedback and let them grow.
- They don’t know how. A common reason we don’t delegate is that we don’t know how. We keep plugging away at the stack on our desks, thinking we’ll eventually get to the bottom of the pile. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. The work never stops, and we’re not using our resources well. If we don’t figure out how to delegate, we burn out and lose good team members.
Solving the delegation problem
So, if you’re a leader who is reluctant to delegate tasks or doesn’t know how, what’s the best way to fix that? You know you can’t do everything, and it isn’t good for you or your team if you try, but how do you embrace delegation when it feels so scary?
To solve the delegation problem, you must
- Start small. If delegation doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s OK to start with delegating small things. It’s probably the best way, actually. Work your delegation muscles until they feel stronger and you’re more confident with the process.
- Build relationships. Know your team and each person’s strengths and weaknesses. Understand what they’re capable of. When you have relationships with your team members, it’s easier to trust them and know they won’t let you down. When you understand each team member’s skills, you feel more confident delegating because you know their capabilities. Heck, you’ll probably even find that some are better at certain tasks than you are.
- Communicate well. A common reason leaders don’t get our desired results is that we don’t communicate effectively. We have to make sure we communicate what the assignment is, what success looks like, and when it’s due. If you think you’re communicating too much about a project, you may be hitting just the right spot. Always try to over-communicate.
- Offer support. Be sure your team knows they can come to you when they get stuck. As leaders, we don’t want to micromanage projects, but at the same time, we don’t want our teams to feel stranded on an island without support. Offer support up front. Inquire about progress and remind your team that you’re here if they need help.
- Provide feedback. Everyone craves feedback. Without it, we’re left wondering if we did a good job. Uncertainty rarely feels good. Once your team delivers a task or project, give them some feedback.
- Focus on success. Focus on things they did well and provide advice for next time. Providing feedback helps you build your team’s abilities while demonstrating your expertise. It also can help those leaders who need control feel like they’re still an active part of the process.
When to delegate tasks
Unfortunately, there’s no cut-and-dried way to know when we should delegate tasks. It would be nice if a chart or program thought of every possible work function and told us who should do it, but that’s not possible. A
general idea is to delegate if another person can complete the task at least 70% as well as you can, but there are many factors to consider when deciding when to delegate, and every organization is unique.
The following types of tasks are generally great for delegating:
- Large or complex tasks. Don’t just throw a huge, complex task at one team member. That’s not what this means. Instead, break big, time-consuming tasks into smaller sub-tasks. Then divide those sub-tasks among your team. This approach encourages teamwork.
- Tasks that require special skills. Everyone has a “very particular set of skills.” (Just ask Liam Neeson.) If a task requires a skill you don’t have that one of your team members does, it makes sense to give it to them. They also enjoy doing certain things more than others. For example, if you have a task that requires technical skills and you aren’t tech-savvy, you can delegate it. In cases like these, you can use a resource like Codeable, which allows you to hire the best WordPress developers for your project when you need those specialized skills.
- Tasks that aren’t a priority. The workday is full of small tasks that have to get done. Delegating those tasks gives you more time to focus on higher-level or more time-bound items on your calendar. We can’t do everything. Leaders need help too.
- Tasks that help others develop. Giving your team members an opportunity to learn new skills will empower them to take more initiative on future projects. When delegating tasks, consider which skills you’d like to nurture in your team members and choose tasks to help them grow.
As we get more comfortable delegating tasks and learn which types of tasks best fit each team member, we’ll be able to assign them more complex tasks moving forward. Pretty soon, delegating tasks will become second nature — at least, we hope it will.
When you need more help
I’ve written a lot to this point about delegating to your team, but what about if you lead a small or medium-sized team? Sure, you can delegate some tasks, but your limited team can only do so much. A sure way to burn out your team is to overfill everyone’s plate. To avoid this, you have to outsource and use apps that make work more efficient.
When you outsource to a human or software, you’re assigning things your team shouldn’t be doing or doesn’t have the expertise to do.
There are tons of ideal outsourcing partners and software. Some do great work or provide tools that can help you get the most out of your work regardless of the size of your team. If you’re looking for some help, check out these resources:
- Imagine what you could get done with an extra hand. That’s what Magic provides. It’s a virtual assistant service that can handle all kinds of tasks, including those related to marketing and customer support.
- Ask Betty. Need some help? Ask Betty. The company provides virtual and personal assistant services. They can also help with all office stuff and provide social media support.
- If you have a WordPress project you’d like to delegate, check out the Codeable difference. Stop wasting time searching for the right person for the job. To find vetted freelancers with fair pricing and no bidding, click here.
- Need project management software? With ClickUp, you can manage the whole team’s work for multiple clients.
- Toggl Track. Need to bill by the hour or gain a better understanding of your team’s productivity? Toggl Track can keep track of time spent on any project and create invoices for you.
- Need a basic plug-and-play design tool? Everyone uses Canva for its templates and simple design capabilities.
- Want to stay in touch with your customers? With MailChimp, you can send them newsletters for free.
- Everyone needs a simple and intuitive way to schedule social media posts across platforms. Buffer is a fan favorite.
- When you have multiple people working in various programs, you could spend a lot of time sharing or trying to remember passwords. LastPass stores and protects them all for you so you can keep all your passwords in one place and share them with your team as needed.
- Have a distributed team, or want to have a single place for all of your communication? Slack is the preferred chat app for teams at this point.
- If you find yourself frequently explaining the same process, make a Loom. You can store the short videos for your team to reference as often as needed.
Top ways to delegate tasks
At its core, delegation is taking a task from your workload and giving ownership of it to someone else. That can be stressful if you’ve never delegated a task before, and it can be challenging for the team member if they don’t feel they have what they need to do the work.
Effective delegation is more than just assigning tasks. You need to trust your team and understand what they can do to enjoy the benefits of delegation. The following tips will help you better understand the best ways to delegate tasks and when to do it.
Identifying the right person for the task
For successful task delegation, choosing the right person for the task is crucial. Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) has a concept called “right person, right seat.” It basically means that any business has to have the right people in the right positions to excel.
The right person, right seat concept has two parts:
- Find the right people. In this step, you think about your business and what human resources it needs to succeed. What positions do you need? What traits or skills must the person in that post have? What values do they need to fit your culture? Once you identify these things, you find and hire the people who fit those needs.
- Put people in the right seats. The second step is where you maximize people’s potential by making sure they’re in the right positions and doing the work they’re meant to do. Sometimes we hire people then realize they’re a better fit for another role or that they have unique skills we weren’t expecting. We have to be fluid enough to recognize this and move people around or adapt their roles.
When you identify the right person to delegate to, you’re putting the right person in the right seat to help your organization excel.
Picking the right team member for the job does more than help your business. It shows your team that you value their particular skills and recognize what they love doing. And, of course, fit matters. Putting a team member in charge of a task they love and excel at will always give you the best results.
Providing clear instructions and setting expectations
Good delegators provide instructions and expectations without micromanaging their team. Explain the expected outcomes and the timeline for hitting specific milestones for your team. Be clear about the resources available and how much you can help.
Avoid telling them exactly how to do every little part of the task. Part of delegating is letting your team members learn new skills. That means they have to figure out solutions to problems and approaches to tasks. Unless there’s a set, specific way the work has to be done, avoid trying to control things.
Remember, the end goal is excellent work. However your team member decides to get there is fine. You don’t always need to know how the hot dogs are made.
Setting realistic deadlines
Here’s the truth — we work faster than many of our team members. We’ve been doing this stuff for years. We’ve developed workflows. There’s little or no uncertainty in our process. But just because something is easy for us doesn’t mean it will be for someone on our teams — at least not the first time.
A teammate doing the work for the first time doesn’t have the luxury of experience. So, just because a task seems easy to you or doesn’t take you long doesn’t mean your team member will have the same experience.
Instead of setting a deadline based on how quickly you can do something with years of experience, think about how long it took you in the beginning. Also, consider how fast this team member usually works. Use those measures to set a realistic deadline.
Oh, and don’t share how long it takes you with the team. That’s a jerk move.
Team members can feel demoralized when they hear how quickly someone can do a task that takes them much longer. Remember, the endgame of delegation is increased productivity and empowered team members. Make sure your deadlines or the information you share don’t have the opposite effect.
Giving up authority
When we delegate and don’t give our team members the authority to make decisions, the delegation will fail. Instead of saving time and energy, the project will stall, and the task will likely end up back with us. Honestly, there’s not much more frustrating than getting a project back and having to do it yourself.
Creating an environment where your team members can make decisions prevents this sort of issue. Part of delegating is empowering your team to do the work you’ve assigned them. Foster a culture where people feel like they can ask questions and take the necessary steps to complete a project without your input.
Guiding through feedback
Delegation is a learning opportunity. To learn new skills, your team needs direct feedback. They need to know what they do well and what they can improve on. Your team members might make mistakes, but feedback can help them learn from their mistakes.
Common mistakes to avoid
Everyone makes mistakes, even leaders. Good leaders can make mistakes while delegating. It takes time to learn how to delegate effectively. Just as team members learn new skills through doing their tasks, we learn how and what to delegate through practice.
There are common mistakes many of us make while delegating. By avoiding these mistakes, we can help our teams complete their work and thus maximize delegation processes.
No one likes a micromanager because they want to control all aspects of the work they “delegate.” They say they’re just checking in when in actuality they want to nitpick every aspect of a project, to the point they might as well do the project themselves. Even worse, a micromanager doesn’t empower the team to make decisions.
Don’t be a micromanager.
Delegation enables you to take a task off your to-do list. If you’re constantly trying to control how a task is done, you’re not delegating — you’re just micromanaging.
Give your team members the time and space to complete their work. They’ll appreciate the freedom and might exceed your expectations.
While no one likes a micromanager, we all love to see our teams succeed and over-deliver, right?
Delegating too much or too little
Good delegation is a balancing act. You need to delegate to get stuff done on time, but you don’t want to give a large project to someone who isn’t ready for it.
You also want to empower your employees with tasks they can do and do on time but don’t want to give them something so small that they feel like you don’t trust them with the big stuff.
It’s tough, right?
Finding the right balance means knowing your team and what they can do. Start by delegating smaller projects to see how your team handles the work, then build up to bigger projects.
Not helping enough
Delegating gives team members opportunities to learn and grow. Providing clear directions and communication is key to ensuring they’re successful. If you don’t, then you’re setting your team members up for failure.
If you don’t provide the necessary support or let your team know you welcome questions, they may not complete the task correctly or on time. You may also find the task back on your to-do list. We never want that to happen. It discourages everyone.
Failing to communicate effectively
Clear instructions and feedback will help your team complete tasks correctly and efficiently. As they learn to do the work, they’ll need your support to make sure they’re on the right track. Giving a team member a task to complete without communication, though, is a recipe for disaster.
Even if the task seems mundane, it may not feel that way for someone who hasn’t done it before. Expecting your team to know how to do something without instruction or resources can leave them feeling demoralized and frustrated. Take the time to communicate with your team about the task so they can complete it.
Delegate and get it done
Have a better idea of the best ways to delegate tasks and when to do so. We discussed the importance of delegation, when you should delegate, and how to pick the right team member for the task. Remember, delegation is a learned skill, so it takes time to do it effectively. Always provide clear instructions, set realistic deadlines, give your team the authority they need to complete the task, and provide the feedback they need to be successful.
Four Effective Tips to Improve Labor Management in Companies
Businesses worldwide are always on the hunt for ways to improve their processes and add more efficiency to day-to-day functions. Of course, labor management is one of the major aspects of every company that demands continuous attention and improvement.
Every business understands that effective labor management is essential when it comes to increasing the productivity, safety, and efficiency of every project. The managers bear all burden to ensure that the labor is working effectively to meet the needs of supply and demand chains.
Here are some effective ways to improve labor management in your company for the best of your business.
1. Use Standardized KPIs
It can be hard to hold someone accountable for their performance when there is no evidence to back up the claims. In such circumstances, the labor deserving of praise may be left out, and those who need improvement may continue to waste company time and resources. Of course, such practices can cost you a lot of time and money in the long run.
Hence, smart companies worldwide are using Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) as a tool for worker motivation and accountability. These indicators help them better understand why certain standardized goals exist and their role in making the company succeed.
2. Incorporate a Software
Managers have a lot on their shoulders in addition to managing the workforce. A few people cannot keep an eye on everyone throughout the day. They need Kaizen Software to find the best solution for labor management. This way, the managers can find time to pay attention to many more important matters.
Efficient management software is being used worldwide due to its countless benefits. They offer security, better communication, and enhanced tracking to make your business more efficient. Hence, your business will have a better opportunity to grow and bloom.
3. Ensure Safety at the Workplace
Every workspace has its own challenges. However, everyone can agree that industrial workers have more challenges when it comes to safety. After all, they are surrounded by heavy machinery and face increased chances of accidents, injuries, and even fatalities. Hence, it must be a top priority to make your workplace safer.
You can start by looking into the hazards in your workspace and minimizing them one by one. In addition, it is also important to ensure that all your workers have access to safety gear at all times. Caution can save more lives than building an elaborate regime to care for injured workers.
4. Keep Workers Posted
Whether a construction site or a chemical industry, there can be new hazards and precautions for workers every day. A little negligence in the workplace can lead to a regrettable accident. Hence, it is always a good idea to keep your workers informed about current events.
Knowledge about company procedures and safety rules can reduce insecurity among workers and increase their efficiency. It is best to let your workers know that all their questions will be answered. This way, they can feel more comfortable seeking your guidance instead of finding out by trial and error.
10 Key Strategies for Managing and Engaging your Employees
Effective employee management and engagement are crucial for small businesses to foster a positive work environment, maximize productivity, and retain top talent. Small business owners need to prioritize their employees’ well-being, provide growth opportunities, and create a culture that promotes engagement and collaboration.
Here, we will explore ten strategies and practices for employee management and engagement in small businesses.
1. Clear Communication and Expectations
Clear communication is vital to set expectations and ensure alignment between the business and its employees. Regularly communicate goals, priorities, and performance expectations to your team. Provide feedback and recognition for their achievements and address any concerns or issues promptly. Encourage an open-door policy and create channels for open dialogue and feedback.
2. Training and Development Opportunities
Investing in training and development opportunities for your employees demonstrates your commitment to their growth and success. Identify areas where employees can benefit from additional skills or knowledge and provide relevant training programs. This can include workshops, conferences, online courses, or mentoring programs. Encourage a culture of continuous learning and support employees’ professional development.
3. Employee Recognition and Rewards
Recognizing and rewarding employee contributions is essential for fostering motivation and engagement. Implement a recognition program that acknowledges outstanding performance, teamwork, and achievements. This can include verbal praise, written appreciation, or tangible rewards such as bonuses or incentives. Regularly celebrate milestones and accomplishments to show appreciation for your employees’ hard work.
4. Work-Life Balance and Well-being
Promote a healthy work-life balance and prioritize employee well-being. Offer flexible work arrangements when possible, such as remote work options or flexible scheduling. Encourage breaks and time off to prevent burnout. Provide resources and support for physical and mental well-being, such as access to wellness programs or employee assistance programs. Show genuine care and support for your employees’ overall well-being.
5. Foster a Collaborative and Inclusive Culture
Create a collaborative and inclusive culture that values diversity and fosters teamwork. Encourage open communication, idea sharing, and collaboration among employees. Foster an environment where everyone feels valued, respected, and included. Embrace diverse perspectives and leverage the unique strengths of your team members to drive innovation and growth.
6. Performance Management and Feedback
Establish a robust performance management system to set clear goals, provide regular feedback, and evaluate employee performance. Implement regular performance reviews to discuss progress, identify development areas, and set new objectives. Provide constructive feedback that focuses on both strengths and areas for improvement to support employee growth.
7. Empowerment and Autonomy
Encourage autonomy and empower employees to take ownership of their work. Delegate responsibilities and provide them with the necessary resources and authority to make decisions. Encourage innovation and creativity by allowing employees to explore new ideas and approaches. Trust their expertise and provide guidance when needed.
8. Career Growth and Advancement
Support your employees’ career growth and advancement within the organization. Provide opportunities for skill development, such as stretch assignments or cross-functional projects. Offer mentorship programs or coaching to help employees navigate their career paths. Create a clear path for advancement and communicate the potential growth opportunities available to them.
9. Team Building and Social Activities
Organize team-building activities and social events to foster strong relationships among your employees. This can include off-site retreats, team lunches, or recreational activities. Encourage team bonding and camaraderie to enhance collaboration and create a positive work culture.
10. Continuous Improvement
Establish a culture of continuous feedback and improvement. Encourage regular check-ins between managers and employees to discuss progress, challenges, and goals. Solicit feedback from employees on processes, policies, and workplace initiatives. Actively listen to their suggestions and make necessary improvements to enhance the work environment.
Effective employee management and engagement are critical for small businesses to thrive. By prioritizing clear communication, providing training and development opportunities, recognizing and rewarding employee contributions, promoting work-life balance and well-being, fostering a collaborative and inclusive culture, and implementing additional strategies such as performance management, empowerment, career growth, team building, and continuous feedback, small business owners can create a positive and engaging work environment.
Investing in your employees’ success and happiness not only benefits them individually but also contributes to the overall success and growth of your small business.
Build a Strong Learning Culture on Your Team
When Kendra Grant’s team was charged with designing and delivering learning experiences for 90,000 Walmart Canada associates, she knew as a senior learning-and-design director that the landscape of corporate learning needs was constantly changing. “Over time,” says Grant, now the principal of her own L&D practice, “we acknowledged that many of the problems we saw such as lack of engagement and lack of retention were a result of the design process and not the fault of the learners.”
If you are in a leadership role in your organization, you more than likely share this problem. Technology and society are driving changes faster than your people can adapt. According to the OECD, 1.1 billion jobs will be disrupted in the next five years. Employees the world over require upskilling (learning to improve current work) and reskilling (learning to do new types of work). Some organizations are heeding the signs and investing heavily in learning and development: Walmart, for example, is investing $1 billion into reskilling its workforce, and McDonald’s has spent $165 million over the past eight years to prepare 72,000 employees for upward mobility. The Association for Talent Development’s most recent study found the average organization spends almost $1,300 per employee on professional learning. Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, exhorts everyone to be a “learn-it-all.”
Workers of today need to prepare for what they’ll be doing tomorrow. But how can they adapt effectively if their work is changing in real time? What skills can they learn now that will support them in the face of a volatile and ambiguous future? And how can their employers support them?
There’s a simple but not easy answer to all of these questions. Employers have to help employees become expert learners — people with the will to learn, the skill to do it effectively, and the ability to apply that learning in ways that positively impact their performance and that of their teams.
Still Wearing Blinders
Traditionally, learning within organizations has been driven by a single department. In a general attempt to motivate and support employee development, the learning-and-development team — which sometimes consists of just one person — acts as an order filler for operations managers and leadership, providing formal learning support, such as classroom training and online modules. Frequently, these efforts are augmented by tuition assistance for degree and certificate programs at institutes of higher education. In recent years, companies have created digital “learning-management systems” or “learning-experience platforms” that offer a Netflix-style menu of learning content that employees can access on-demand and at their own pace.
Unfortunately, however, these approaches to employee learning are not up today’s challenge, for a few reasons:
A day late and a dollar short. Content creation lags significantly behind the need for that content, making the content available less relevant to current needs. Also, when an employee needs new knowledge and skills now, a course next month isn’t helpful.
One-size-fits-none. Every learner is unique, with varied strengths, experiences, and challenges. Every learner works in different contexts, thus requiring greater personalization to support meaningful learning and improvement.
A lack of support for application. Pushing out content can impart new information, but developing effective skills requires coaching, reinforcement, and opportunities for safe, authentic practice.
A cultural disconnect. Leaders can say they value learning, but according to Deloitte, workers actually have less than 1% of their time available for learning. Further, learning can be messy, because it requires that people try new things and make mistakes. If an organization punishes people for those mistakes, as some do, people will shy away from learning.
Learner experience and identity. Not everyone thinks of themselves as a lifelong learner, nor do they all have the skills to learn and apply learning effectively. Further, biases in development programs may reinforce the notion that only some people are capable of learning and therefore worth the investment. This bias is communicated to workers.
There Is a Solution
We need to address these barriers to learning in order to meet the challenges of today and the future. Learning, after all, is what enables people to adapt to change and even become drivers of change. But, as Matthew Daniel has recently noted on the Chief Learning Officer website, even if people want to learn they may not know what to learn — or how to learn.
Expert learning requires two key conditions. The first is context. People need the time and space to learn. They need timely, actionable feedback; opportunities for collaboration; and just-in-time support to convert new knowledge and skills into measurable performance improvement. Then there’s capacity. Each person has talents, strengths, interests, challenges, and experiences that influence how they engage with, make sense of, and apply new knowledge and skills. We can’t assume everyone has developed the requisite learning skills and behaviors, and we can’t effectively gauge learning capacity in advance. However, we can help all people become expert learners, by providing them with options to learn and apply key learning behaviors rooted in a framework known as the Universal Design for Learning.
UDL, as it’s often called, was first devised in the 1990s by researchers and clinicians at the nonprofit learning organization CAST, Inc., under the direction of the neuropsychologist David Rose, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Today it’s endorsed in federal education legislation as a means for supporting inclusive, impactful learning for all learners. That includes workforce preparation and training. In essence, UDL helps us embrace the differences between learners — their variability in strengths, interests, attitudes, cultures, and more — by setting firm, challenging goals and allowing for flexible pathways to meet those goals.
When employing UDL in creating learning experiences, you’re encouraged to think of learning as a set of behaviors and skills that exist on a continuum from novice to expert. Novice learning is primarily guided by external forces: Novices learn what they’re told, when they’re told, for the reasons given to them. They are the type of learners whom top-down, one-size-fits-all training was meant to serve. A distinct step above the novice level is self-directed learning, where learners take the initiative for their own learning, making decisions about what, when, and how to learn.
Expert learning takes things to another level, by adding in specific learning skills and a focus on strategic performance improvement. Expert learners have the will and skill to learn, can identify ways to leverage that learning into impact, and are always looking for new challenges and ways to improve their skills. They are the learners best able to adapt to the rapidly changing modern workplace.
How Expert Learners Improve Outcomes
Building a strong learning culture that focuses on capacity and context can give companies a strategic advantage. Let’s consider why.
First, employees who are skilled learners can more readily innovate, for what is innovation if not the learning how to solve a problem in a new way? A person focused on continuous improvement rarely settles for “We’ve always done it this way.” Expert learners can identify emerging knowledge and skill needs and generate new knowledge to meet those needs.
Next, learning fuels employee engagement. Employer-supported learning is a key driver of retention, particularly when learning is visibly linked to employee development — that is, upward mobility. Creating a culture that supports people to learn and own their improvement makes improvement a common cause between the employees and the organization. Further, a visible emphasis on learning can be key to attracting new talent, with Gen Z and Millennial workers citing learning and upward mobility as key motivators in selecting job opportunities.
Finally, investing in learning is just that: an investment. According to Gallup, companies that invest in employee development increase profitability by 11%.
Building a Culture of Expert Learners
Building a culture of expert learning is a complex undertaking. There are, however, some foundational practices, aligned with UDL, that leaders and teams can engage in as they work to develop support an expert learning culture.
Adopt a learning philosophy and stick to it.
A learning philosophy is a codification of what the organization believes about learning, including its value, the responsibilities of each person related to learning, and the methods by which the organization will support its employees to learn and improve.
Consider the philosophy of the United States Marine Corps, where learning is literally a survival skill. In 2020, the USMC published Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 7: Learning, or the MCDP 7, which tells all Marines, from the lowest-ranking enlisted member to the commandant, that they have a professional responsibility to learn. It also lays out the necessary conditions for learning, requiring each Marine to contribute to and leverage those conditions. All Marines are told they can’t rely on a training department of some sort but instead have to define and own their roles as learners. “Continuous learning is essential,” USMC Commandant Gen. D.H. Berger writes in the MCDP-7, “… because it enables Marines to quickly recognize changing conditions in the battlespace, adapt, and make timely decisions against a thinking enemy.”
Audit your culture for barriers to learning.
With your learning philosophy in place, make sure the collective behaviors, practices, and systems of your organization — and particularly the behaviors of your leaders — model and support the tenets of that philosophy. Examine what learning currently looks like in your organization and begin addressing common barriers. Provide time and resources for learning and regularly reinforcing the value of learning. Incentivize experimentation, collaboration, and knowledge-sharing. Promote team learning over individual knowledge-hoarding. Link learning to development by creating clear pathways for skill development and promotion. And enlist frontline employees and managers to more quickly identify learning needs and potential solutions.
To act like expert learners, particularly in selecting and strategically applying learning, people need flexibility in when and how they learn. New approaches, such as learner-cluster design and the modern-learning–ecosystem framework, acknowledge variability among learners, providing them options that best suit their learning needs, and close the gap between formal learning and where learning happens most — on the job.
* * *
Change is constant, and the need for adaptability extends beyond leaders to every level of the organization. When employees own their improvement, they can better anticipate, communicate, and meet their upskilling and reskilling needs. As Kendra Grant pointed out in describing her work with Walmart, many barriers to improvement that are thought to be internal to learners are really external — they’re flaws in the design. UDL helps us focus on what works for people rather than on what’s not working in them. By providing the right context and supporting capacity, we can make expert learning become the skill that fills the skills gap.
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