What stimulates employees to apply learning
13 Apr 2016

What stimulates employees to apply learning

categories: Business Simulations, Experiential Learning, Learning methodology

Stanford professor Carol Dweck is known globally in education, but her work is not yet widely used in business learning and development, which is a shame.

Her book Mindset – The New Psychology of Success can teach us a lot about the way in which we give feedback, and about how important that is in terms of stimulating people to learn, and to apply their learning in the workplace.

Dweck’s researches led her to the theory that we are all on a continuum between two types of mindset:

FIXED MINDSET: “People are born with innate abilities. I am just bad at, say, mathematics, so I cannot understand it. I dread failure, and avoid challenges.”

GROWTH MINDSET: “I can develop my abilities if I practise and work to improve. I do not mind failing because I learn from it, and by taking on challenges I can improve and grow.

So Dweck found that even though many of us do not recognise such traits in ourselves, they are seen in our behaviour, especially our reaction to failure. And her experiments showed that by improving the way feedback was given, teachers improved their pupils’ performance by 50%: they were encouraged to believe that they could grow.

A simple example is that when you say:
“Well done, you’re very smart”
– you encourage a fixed mindset.

But when you say:
“Well done, you worked very hard”
– you help the person to develop a growth mindset.

Mindsets are stable over many years for most people, but they are not universal (you may have a fixed mindset about parts of your work, and a growth one about your hobby), and they can be changed by the way we talk to others, or to ourselves. Giving trainers, managers and coaches a working knowledge of how to do this can make a huge difference to people’s willingness to learn, the amount they learn when exposed to opportunities, and the level of application that happens subsequently.

Simulation based learning

One of the powerful aspects of simulations in driving higher levels of learning is the social aspect. If you work in a small team, on a realistic project, that gives clear and immediate feedback on your success or failure, there is a strong desire to succeed. If success depends on learning, people will learn in this situation.

And as well as having the peer pressure to contribute to the team’s success, team members constantly share their thoughts and thinking processes as well as their opinions and conclusions; “this is what I think we should do, and here is why I think so…” This creates an excellent opportunity to model new thinking processes, and embed them in our repertoire of mental habits. Likewise, the positive attitudes of team members can be infectious, and mindsets can change through exposure to other people’s approaches. Of course, having the team explicitly aware of mindsets and their influence can make this happen both more explicitly, and more effectively.

Most people agree that they have learnt more from failures than from their successes. So in designing simulation based learning, we provide abundant opportunities to fail, in a safe environment, and to learn from the failure.  By placing the emphasis in our debrief discussions on learning from what happened (rather than the actual results), we encourage a wider growth mindset which participants take back to their jobs.

Feedback Loops & reinforcement

One of the clearest research findings about the application of learning at work is the crucial role of the learner’s manager. If s/he is interested in what you learnt, and asks how you are using it, adding encouragement and challenge as appropriate, the learning will normally be applied, used, and become a permanent part of your skill set. Without that interest, it is unlikely to be used at all. As a result, we place great importance on ensuring that the management team who commissioned the experiential learning will follow through with positive actions to reinforce its outcomes.

For example, in a new course for Sheffield Insulation Group, we are training employees in customer-facing skills, and their branch managers and their area managers. The branch managers are given specific help in how to coach the employees to apply their learning, which will make the business more profitable, and achieve the managers’ objectives. Their bosses are given help in coaching the branch managers to do this, which will help the area managers to meet their own objectives. And the employees are encouraged to ask the managers for help in making it happen. This achieves a ‘double reinforcement’ whereby people at each level are keeping their boss up to scratch, as well as ensuring that a whole team of people is working on the application of the learning, and that each individual is given maximum support. In this context, it is hard for people at any level to turn their back on what has been learnt, without losing respect from their boss or subordinates.

Fear of Finance

A common hesitancy is based upon how difficult you think a process is going to be – and a classic example of this, repeated in a million offices, is financial awareness and acumen. Many people reach senior levels of management despite being unable to comprehend the interaction of profit and loss statements, balance sheets and cash flow. This is not actually because they lack any innate ability – it is simply that they have never had the right opportunity to learn, or more likely that traditional teaching methods have failed them.

Using ProfitAbility’s Business and Financial Acumen simulations, cash flow becomes tangible and alive, and number-shy people who thought they could never construct a cash flow forecast are doing it unaided, after a few rounds of the game.  The crucial switchover is that they learn from concrete visual examples, which they are emotionally attached to, and can easily match the theory to them. They concentrate on running a business, and “get” the financial concepts along the way; and once they believe that it is easy, they are free both to keep learning, and to use that learning in real life.


Having spent over 40 years in applying novel experiential learning techniques to businesses, I am currently very involved in converting the best practices from the educational sphere, such as the Mindset approach and Making Thinking Visible, into the world of work.

If you decide to work with ProfitAbility – and use our methods to help you execute change, educate staff in the ways of finance, develop more agile managers, execute your strategic management plans or deal with any number of other pressing issues – then you will embark on a journey that I guarantee will generate lasting and very positive effects. All of our programmes are designed to feed through into a more profitable bottom line.

To follow up, please contact me – or call +44(0) 1491 821 900 to discuss with us what it is that you need to transform within your business.

You can also experience our methods for yourself. Register here to secure one of the limited number of places for these free sessions.

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