The Difference Between Real Learning and ‘Morale Boosting’

When is a corporate Learning & Development program doomed to failure? No matter what industry you’re in, the answer’s the same: When it’s only there to make employees feel good, not to help them advance their careers.

One video professional remembers an ex-employer who offered programs “as morale boosters with no further action.” The skills being taught weren’t relevant for helping employees do their jobs or advance to higher positions. At his 1,000-employee company, “The CEO made a big deal about training available in IT for non-IT personnel,” he says. The IT department wasn’t expanding, and the company had no plans to even consider non-IT personnel for technology roles anyway. “Many employees laughed at the absurdity of it.”

‘Cotton Candy’ Learning

“Morale boost learning is like cotton candy,” says Christopher Veal, organizational development and training manager for the Orange County Fire Authority in southern California. “Sure, you leave feeling good, but it’s fleeting. Nothing really changes and the participant doesn’t likely change behavior in any way that makes a difference.”

Sometimes, “morale boost” programs may come with good intentions. For example, when David Stanley worked in the brutal field of financial sales for a Richmond, Va.-based company, “phones were slammed down on salespeople, doors were shut in their faces, insults were hurled,” he recalls. “Frontline sales people took a beating. Consequently, most of our training consisted of pep talks designed to counteract the psychological damage.”

However, the approach didn’t fix the problem, which was “inadequate substantive training,” says Stanley, who is now a science teacher and author. “As with most pep-talks, the effects were short-lived and useless.” Instead, he believes the training should have focused on how to prospect effectively in order to spend more time selling to qualified leads and less time being harassed by people with no interest in financial products.  

The Training Effectiveness Gap

This disconnect between the knowledge workers need and the knowledge they receive is a challenge faced by Learning & Development professionals everywhere. Around the world, 84 percent of executives believe learning is important, yet only 37 percent of companies believe that their current training programs are effective, according to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report.

This gap is leading employees toward the door. “Dissatisfaction with some employee-development efforts appears to fuel many early exits,” wrote Monika Hamori, Jie Cao and Burak Koyuncuin in the Harvard Business Review.  

“We asked young managers what their employers do to help them grow in their jobs and what they’d like their employers to do, and found some large gaps,” the researchers said. “Workers reported that companies generally satisfy their needs for on-the-job development... But they’re not getting much in the way of formal development, such as training, mentoring, and coaching—things they also value highly.”

With that in mind, it’s easy to see how short-term morale-boosting isn’t satisfying employees’ long-term goals. And when workers find a company that will offer real learning opportunities, they’re happy to jump.

The Cultural Fix

So how can businesses make sure their training options align with their employees’ aspirations?

One of the keys is to maintain a culture in which employees feel they can safely communicate with their managers, says Kristen Fyfe-Mills, associate director of communications at the Association for Talent Development in Alexandria, Va. For example, at previous employers she’s sat through programs that didn’t align with her goals for advancement. “I wish I’d known I could go to my manager and say, ‘You know, this training you’re having me do [in drafting documents], I learned in eighth grade. This won’t help me contribute to your bottom line faster. Are there some other ways we can structure programming?’”

“Really effective change,” Fyfe-Mills says, “comes when people are able to express themselves in organizations.”

But that’s only a piece of the puzzle. Companies must also conduct needs assessments for improving and fine-tuning their training options.

For Veal, the first step is to consider what some people call “WIIFM,” or “What’s In It For Me?” “When I’m looking to design training for our employees, one of the first things I look at is the ‘WIIFM’ aspect as it relates to the target audience,” he says. “There’s a lot of content out there to be found, and I want to make sure that it has practical and useful relevance for our participants.”

A Crucial Investment

It’s also important to remind executives that when training is done right--when it really educates employees rather than just attempts to make them feel good--businesses succeed.

“Global business is really competitive. If you want a highly skilled workforce, that’s going to require an investment in people--an investment that’s relevant and meaningful and is contributing to business impact,” Fyfe-Mills points out. Building a successful talent development program “is a game changer for organizations.” Companies that truly position themselves for success “are the ones doubling down on their beliefs and investments in talent development,” she says.

Research backs her up. Numerous studies show that impactful training programs improve retention, and employees become more committed, innovative and productive. In fact, Deloitte notes that after “studying more than 30 different research studies on retention and engagement, researchers found that focus on company-specific training is one of the strongest contributors to employee engagement and retention. Research also shows that ‘high-impact’ learning organizations deliver 30 percent higher customer service and show similar high performance in innovation.”

When learning hits the mark, employees “see the path forward and make that discretionary investment to want to contribute more,” Fyfe-Mills says.

It’s also crucial for attracting millennials, now the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. As Gallup found: “Millennials are not pursuing job satisfaction--they are pursuing development.”

Steady Improvement

The good news is things are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly.

“The trend lines are all pointing up,” Fyfe-Mills says. ADT’s annual state of the industry report found that companies invested an average of $1,252 per employee in 2015, totalling more than 4.3 percent of percent payroll expenditures, up from 4 percent the previous year. The amount of time employees spent in training also rose, to 33.5 hours from 32.4. And, Fyfe-Mills notes, companies are learning to put more focus and funding into the kind of training that their workforces need to advance.

Deloitte found similarly positive developments. According to its 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, companies are moving toward “always-on” learning experiences that allow employees to build skills “quickly, easily, and on their own terms.”  

Finally, Veal says, while learning for advancement is important, it doesn’t have to be the sole focus. “Some employees may not have a desire to climb the ladder. They may simply want to learn new skills. So be sure to look at the multiple reasons for why your employees are seeking learning opportunities,” he advises.

Morale boosts can deflate quickly. Cotton candy leaves you hungry. To tap into the power of their employees, businesses need to give them the fuel they deserve--the chance to learn, develop, and expand. That’s how you build the workforce of the future.