One of the greatest challenges facing organizations around the globe is catalyzing skills development amidst a challenging work environment—to make work more sustainable and thus more human. The aging workforce, an ongoing labor shortage, a growing skills gap, and the evolving nature of work all underscore the persistent need to think more disruptively about how much we learn ,as well as how we unleash the newfound capacity to learn.
From neuroscience we know humans have an innate capability to grow new neurons and forge new neuronal connections well into old age, but there is ongoing opportunity to apply recent developments in neuroscience to teaching and learning in organizations. As we learn more about how the brain works, we can break down barriers to learning and evolve human capabilities.
One such barrier is making time to learn. Work context, stress, corporate culture, and lack of confidence that time invested in learning will pay off all work to hinder motivation and thwart our natural tendency and capability to engage with ongoing learning and growth. A common reaction is “making time for learning” through various initiatives. Some organizations take it a step further by incentivizing learning through monetary benefits and rewards.
While these initiatives are perhaps necessary for removing both time and financial barriers to engaging in learning, they don’t necessarily address a key barrier to learning: intrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated learners are motivated by the desire to explore one’s curiosity and capacity and seek out new challenges and experiences for the sake of growth and fulfillment.
While there are ways to work on your own mindset to increase your own intrinsic motivation, there are three ideas you also can apply—with peers and team members or friends and family—to encourage others around you to learn and grow:
- Creating an environment of autonomy
- Encouraging learning
- Connecting learning to purpose
Creating an Environment of Autonomy
“Take what you want, leave what you don’t” is a mindset I’ve ported from the practice of yoga and apply when coaching and encouraging others in their personal development journeys. Learning is, after all, a practice, and creating untimely and sometimes unproductive expectations for others often can hinder their attempts to learn and grow. That is because pressures that counter autonomy—including others initiating the behaviors—undermine intrinsic motivation.
Autonomy is the sense that one is acting in a fashion that is self-initiated and authentic to their self-identity. Mounting evidence from neuroscience continues to support what earlier psychology experiments found: Autonomy can be a powerful intrinsic motivator and activate those parts of the brain most tuned in to learning, whereas having to follow direction—particularly when it doesn’t make sense—can have the opposite effect.
Encouraging others to pursue learning that aligns with self-identity and meets them where they are right now can empower them to develop self-awareness and drive commitment to engage in learning that is most relevant. As a peer, coach, or manager, you can create this autonomy by being a brainstorming partner in development and asking simple questions such as:
“Does that resonate?”
“Does that feel achievable?”
“Does that feel like something that would energize you?”
Building Confidence (and Habit)
One of the most fundamental concepts of neuroscience is the notion of plasticity: “Neurons that fire together wire together.” It is through this process of connecting and repeating that synaptic strength, and learning, increases. I like to think of it as a path in the woods—the more you walk the path, the easier it becomes to walk that path.
There is a similar path when it comes to the systematic process of learning. When you develop a new understanding around new or complex subjects, it not only forges learning around the topic (just as any other learning activity) but helps develop and strengthen neural networks. When the type of learning is more complex or novel, the act of learning can increase our capacity to learn by helping develop new strategies for more varied learning approaches, leading to the formation of new neural pathways.
Learning itself is a skill, and the more experienced at learning we become, the better we get at it. We develop practices like suspending judgement, self-examination, and exploring our curiosities for the sake of learning. Since learning begets learning, encouraging others to spend time learning anything, particularly if it’s complex or different, can help drive increased skill and appreciation around learning.
Connecting Learning to Purpose
Perhaps one of the biggest boosts to intrinsic motivation is purpose. Focusing our attention on something bigger than ourselves makes us neurologically and physically more equipped to handle difficult challenges. Purpose seeking is part of our ancient, hardwired system and serves to energize many types of exploratory activities.
What is interesting about these three tactics is that they all work through the “brain reward network,” the system that releases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine when needs are met. The effect is that doing it results in wanting to do more of it, multiplying our motivation and exponentiating our ability to learn. What’s unique about purpose is that it stimulates the “happiness trifecta,” which is a rush from oxytocin and serotonin, in addition to dopamine.
You can help others around you connect to purpose by modeling it yourself, demonstrating how you tune into purpose as a means to energize yourself around new and rewarding work (and learning.) You also can drive exploratory conversations, asking questions that help others identify purpose in their own lives:
“If you could do anything, what would it be?”
“What activities make you feel good when you can do them?”