ATD Blog

3 Tips to Increase Learning Engagement

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A colleague and I recently attended the ATD Chapter Leaders Conference (ALC) in Washington, D.C., where a major theme was engagement. The attendees of the conference were worried about how to increase members’ engagement in chapter events. But the question can be applied much more broadly—especially to the training and development field.

Whether planning a five-person training session or an agency-wide learning program, learning and development professionals are continually striving to improve learners’ engagement.

We know people engage in learning when they find what’s offered helpful to them in some way. The problem is that identifying what our learners actually find helpful can be tricky!

We often assume we know what they want or need, only to later find out we were off-base. Such assumptions usually happen because we fail to get really curious about what’s going on for the employee populations we serve. We tend to focus on our own needs, objectives, and goals—what we need to get done and what boxes we need to check. Unfortunately, we also become blind to the learners needs and goals. This is what Arbinger calls an inward mindset.

To help engage people in learning, therefore, we need to get curious. Here are three tips on how to do so.

#1. Ask Yourself: “What Job Are They Hiring Me For?”

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen developed the theory of “Jobs to Be Done,” In a Harvard Business Review article, Christensen defines a job to be done as, “The progress that the customer is trying to make in a given circumstance—what the customer hopes to accomplish.”


The phrase “jobs to be done” is a simple, concise way to probe into learners’ needs, challenges, and goals. What problems are they trying to solve through our training? For example, is there a crop of new hires who need to quickly get up to speed on their new roles? A group of people who must learn to use a new software tool? New managers who need leadership development skills? Employees attending a mandatory training who’d be delighted if this check-the-box exercise actually entertained and educated them?

By focusing training to address our audience’s specific job to be done, we can dramatically increase engagement levels.

#2. Ask Lots of People

Too often (myself included), we come up with an idea, bounce it off a couple of colleagues who happen to be nearby, and launch into action assuming we’ve done sufficient due diligence. This approach might suffice in some cases. But we’re taking the risk that our idea is totally off-base. Just because a few colleagues agree with us doesn’t mean we’re truly plugged into our participants’ needs, challenges, and objectives.

Instead, we should go out and ask a wide range of employees about themselves. What makes them tick? What are their headaches? Their goals? We can aim to understand the learners’ needs broadly, then narrow our inquiry to address our specific training and development plans.


#3. Measure and Adjust

It’s critical to set up a regular feedback loop with our learners so that we can adapt to evolving needs. Surveys can be very helpful in this regard, especially when we include questions that help confirm or revise our hypotheses about learners’ jobs to be done. In addition, we can implement a regular cadence of personal check-ins with a representative sample of employees. By asking them how they’re doing, what their challenges are, and what they think of the learning opportunities we’re providing, we can get a real-time sense of how helpful they find our learning opportunities.

Using these two sources of feedback, we can adjust our development efforts accordingly. Note: Do prepare yourself to make adjustments! Sometimes when we have an idea we really like, it’s hard to let go even when it becomes obvious that participants wouldn’t find the idea valuable. To mitigate this tendency, we can refocus on developing curiosity about them. What do they need, and how can we be most helpful?

At Arbinger, we use a process called SAM to help us get curious and tailor our work in a systematic way. SAM stands for: “See Others,” “Adjust Efforts,” and “Measure Impact.” You can read more about SAM in last month’s blog.

To learn more about mindset change and its effectiveness in learning and development, attend the upcoming ATD/Arbinger webinar, “Future-Proof Your Organization Through an Outward Mindset.”

About the Author

Heather Adams is director of marketing at the Arbinger Institute, a training and consulting firm that helps individuals, teams, and organizations move from the default self-focus of an inward mindset to the others-inclusive focus of an outward mindset. With programs and methodology based on 45 years of research in the psychology of human behavior and more than 35 years of practical experience working with organizations worldwide, Arbinger enables organizations and their people to achieve results that are only possible with an outward mindset.

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