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Self-directed learning: Empower your employees in 5 steps


Are your employees less than enthusiastic about their training and development initiatives? Self-directed learning could make a difference.

If your team members are just going through motions, it may be because they don’t feel a sense of ownership over their learning and career development.

Self-directed learning shifts the responsibility away from the organization and to the individual. The employee takes the reins, selecting their own training content according to their individual learning interests and needs.

With a personal stake in their learning, employees are more invested. They learn faster because they’re selecting topics of interest. And, overall, there’s an increased level of engagement, which leads to higher employee morale and productivity.

With so many compelling reasons to consider self-directed learning, you might be wondering how you can implement this type of initiative in your company. Follow these steps to get it off the ground.

1. Be ready to adapt

If you’re a leader who is accustomed to a more structured learning path, implementing self-directed learning in your organization will require a mental shift in how you think about employee development. While there’s still a place for structured learning, the flexibility of self-directed learning forces you to relinquish some control.

To be clear, you’re not abandoning the structured training – you still need it to get people up to speed on how to do their jobs and follow processes and procedures. But self-directed learning allows employees to occasionally step out of the mold and shape their own learning experience.

With this undertaking, you will begin to develop a culture of learning in your business.

While most organizations can adapt to this type of learning environment, there must be a commitment from leadership for it to really work. Make sure to not only acknowledge this yourself but also relay the message to other leaders in your organization if you decide to move forward.

The shift won’t happen overnight. Give yourself and your employees some grace as you begin.

2. Get alignment with your employees

Ready to get started? It will take some effort on your end to get it moving.

With self-directed learning, you’ll still need to set guidelines to help your employees focus. For example, you wouldn’t want your employee to sign up for just any type of training – an irrelevant basket-weaving course probably won’t help your business.

Instead, give your employees a target. Define the skills or competencies that your organization needs as a whole to reach its goals. Leave off the list any role-specific skill sets – these should apply to any and all employees.

From there, let employees choose a relevant training topic, along with how and when they will complete it. When you set expectations like this, your employees can find their own path while keeping close ties to your business goals.

Employees can then find a learning opportunity that aligns with their interests, desired career paths and preferred learning styles.

For example, say your organization has identified emotional intelligence as a key skill needed for future leaders in your growing business. Two employees who are both interested in a leadership path might find themselves in different learning environments, covering different topics while working toward the same goal.

Because the first employee is an auditory learner, he signs up for a series of webinars to help him improve his self-awareness. Meanwhile, the second employee – a tactile learner – decides to sign up to attend an interactive workshop on social awareness.

Despite the differences, both employees are:

  • Reaching toward the same organizational goal (both self-awareness and social awareness are key components of emotional intelligence)
  • Selecting a relevant topic that aligns with their own interests and needs
  • Learning the new information in a manner that works best for their personal learning styles

Self-directed learning allows employees to tailor their development plans in a way that structured learning cannot.

3. Give as much, or as little, guidance as needed

Your employees have a greater awareness than you do of what they know, what they don’t know, and what they need to know to fill the gaps.

That’s why it’s important to allow your employees to do their own training research. When they research and select a training method themselves, they’ll find the ones that are ideally suited to their individual needs.

This will leave it wide open for employees to explore their options. However, for some employees, too much freedom may leave them feeling like they don’t know where to start. Provide an avenue for employees like this to find learning resources.

For example, you could purchase access to an online learning library with content they can choose from while reminding employees that they should also feel free to find their own learning tools elsewhere. With a little creativity, it’s pretty easy to find cost-effective training options.

Whether it’s a free learning resource online or one that needs to be purchased by the company, create an environment where employees feel comfortable bringing forward learning opportunities for your approval.

Keep in mind that you should be prepared to pull the trigger and purchase training when it’s reasonable, appropriate and within budget – or employees could lose interest in participating altogether.

And remember, a stellar employee training and development program will include a wide variety of media and platforms to meet the needs and diverse learning styles of your entire workforce.

4. Keep your employees on track

Be sure to set some goals around the training. For instance, agree on when the training should be completed and what the employee should get out of it.

As you move forward, also provide ongoing check-ins with your employees related to training. The feedback loop will help you better understand whether employees are benefiting from the additional training and the freedom to choose.

Try to keep these check-ins informal. Putting too much formality and structure around them will send the wrong message.

For instance, you could just catch up with an employee about their training at the end of a meeting on another topic. You might say, “How’s that training going? What are you excited about? What are you learning? What are your struggles? Tell me about your experience.”

If you show interest, employees will be excited to share, and it will encourage them to do more. It also helps ensure that they’re not falling short of the training goals that you set together.

5. Reap the rewards

You may be surprised by the new skills or insight employees bring to the table after they’ve completed their training. Learning often spurs innovation.

As employees complete training, look for signs that they’re starting to flex their new-found skills. Recognize their efforts and encourage them to demonstrate their new capabilities.

By doing so, you show that you care about their development, and you will keep them energized, engaged and enthusiastic as they move forward.

Meanwhile, your business will be moving the needle closer to reaching organizational goals – all while keeping morale high and productivity strong.

Want more tips to help your growing business?

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