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Before You Get Into Cognitive Social Science & Brain-Based Research
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Brain-Based Research

Now there is nothing wrong with Learning & Development programs founded upon cognitive science and brain-based research. In fact, some stunning breakthroughs in learning theory fields which have proven very useful in accelerating an employee’s time from-hire-to-autonomy have come from progressive thinking and research in these areas.

Given the current market-driven pressures to bring new hires up to speed more quickly than ever before and move members of the workforce into the realm of discretionary productivity, understanding the complexities of how the brain captures, processes, stores, and retrieves information represents an important factor in the development of any well-structured and effective skills development program that strives to produce competitive results.

Royal Dutch Shell, a longtime leader in the field of employee development, offers an array of programs that ensure a smooth on-boarding process and nearly seamless transition to higher levels of competency. Progress checks every six months in the early years ensure Shell employees participating in these programs make continual progress along defined paths.

A frequent speaker at HR conferences, Michael Killingsworth, Shell’s VP of Learning and Organizational Effectiveness, oversees Shell’s L&D programs. He is also an avid fan of brain-based research notables such as Dr. Georgi Lozanov, a Bulgarian psychotherapist, and Dr. Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist at Harvard University, as well as thought leaders Elliott Masie, an early proponent of eLearning, and John Kirkpatrick, famous for his four-levels of training course evaluation.

Brain-based research follows the theory that the brain seeks to identify patterns, associations, and meaning from the information provided to it. Dr. Lozanov, an early innovator in brain-based research, founded the Suggestology Research Institute in 1966 to share his message that learning is more effective when instructors portray it as a fun experience. Additionally, Dr. Lozanov developed a methodology for teaching languages which he claims liberates the student from any negative associations associated to learning the new language. Dr. Gardner proclaimed in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences that each individual possessed a unique blend of intelligences. He focused attention on the intelligence categories of musical, visual, verbal, logical, bodily, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential. Gardner theorized that the unique blend of intelligences possessed by each individual empowers learners by not restricting them to one modality of learning.

While many companies fall short of providing their L&D professionals the generous budgets available to Killingsworth for implementation of programs utilizing advanced learning theories at Royal Dutch Shell, there is still much those with more meager funding can do. A motivated and knowledgeable L&D professional can implement an effective skills development program which taps the benefits of advanced theories but on a much smaller scale. It is often not the size of the budget but proper attention to the conditions surrounding the learning process that makes for an effective employee development regimen.

So where does the idea of common sense enter the equation?

One of the most important details relative to the success of an L&D program relates to the conditions prevalent in the workplace environment. It is well-known and accepted in the educational arena that school children learn better when the classroom is comfortable, external distractions are minimized, they have access to adequate resources, their teachers are competent and supportive, and they do not come to class hungry. School meal programs were implemented specifically to address the fact that some children from poor families came to school hungry and, therefore, had trouble concentrating on their lessons.

Similarly, employees are not immune to the influence conditions present in the workplace have on their ability to learn and perform. It is human nature and an instinctual reality that people are influenced by and react to their surroundings. The survival of the human race depends on this inherent capability of humans to identify and react to threats in a timely manner. While the workplace environment may not represent a physical threat to survival, it can certainly represent a threat to learning and productivity.

When corporate leaders create non-supportive work environments either by design or default, common sense dictates that this is going to have some impact on the employees that work in that environment. It stretches credibility to believe that a non-supportive work environment would not generate pushback against the gains in productivity that even the most rudimentary training effort seeks and most L&D professionals strive to achieve.

This is not rocket science and it does not require cognitive science or brain-based research to understand that people feel better, learn better, work better, and are generally more engaged and productive in supportive workplace environments. Logic would lead most people to conclude that many of the frustrations experienced by HR professionals who see their best efforts at employee engagement and retention fall short may well be due to the failure of corporate leaders to create and sustain supportive work environments.

Wonder why so many people are frustrated with their jobs?

It is common knowledge, at least in HR circles, that the Gallup Management Journal has reported 70% of workers are disengaged from their jobs. This translates to nearly one in every four workers clocking into a day filled with frustrating experiences. What is more frustrating than trying to be productive in a work environment that pushes back against productivity? For every person who is happy and content in his job, there are three people counting the minutes till they go home.

By contrast, supportive work environments are naturally engaging. So, the fact that employee engagement is a hot, troubling topic at most HR conferences and online blogs indicates this morsel of common sense has not broached the corporate community strongly enough for it to generate a concerted response.

The question is why not?

The tremendously high number of workers under such levels of negative stress only serves to exacerbate already high healthcare costs associated with stress-related illnesses, excessive recruitment costs in response to high turnover rates, and, of course, the costly nature of lost productivity due to the astronomically high number of disengaged employees.

Why has this not caused more outrage?

This is not a worker versus management issue. It should be patently unacceptable, yet it persists! The frustration that results from such high levels of disengagement have invaded workplaces in nearly every discipline and at all levels of the corporate structure. Administrative assistants, simply wanting to do a good job, may see fleeing to another company as a path to relief even when the odds of landing in a similar or worse situation prevail. C-suite executives and their direct reports, frustrated with not being able to turn higher profit numbers, face a constant assault from excessive turnover rates and slumping productivity punching holes in their bottom lines in an already uncertain economy.

The solution lies not in placing blame at the feet of either party but rather formulating an alliance which draws upon the power each has to contribute to a sustainable supportive workplace environment. It starts with a clear understanding of the link between management decisions and worker productivity. This link is not a direct connection. Management cannot waive the corporate wand and command sustainable productivity because productivity is driven directly by employee motivation which is entirely under the command of each individual employee and free from direct management control. The best management can do is solicit and embrace employee motivation. Employees are entirely free to respond accordingly.

Employee recognition programs have traditionally represented the foundation of efforts to inspire employee motivation. While employee recognition programs may produce short term results, the effect is certainly not sustainable and might even produce an undesirable result in a non-supportive work especially when employees see the recognition as a cheap manipulation technique with little else in the environment validating the recognition. This being said, employee recognition is a natural component of a supportive workplace environment.

Threats from management may result in a temporary bump in the productivity meter but just as with insincere recognition programs and other short-sighted manipulation techniques, employees know the reality of the situation they face. A sustainable increase in productivity is only possible in a supportive workplace environment.

And, management’s only control over employee motivation lies in the ability to create and sustain the work environment. In other words, management can choose to create a supportive workplace environment which in turn invites the employee to engage in a self-motivated effort to be productive. This line of thinking does not take an aerospace engineer or even an organizational psychologist to validate.

This is common sense!

Ask anyone whether they would prefer to work in a supportive environment or they would willfully choose to work at a company where respect, support, and clear communication are severely lacking. The answer is obvious!

Whether they have thought about it in detail, people inherently know what engages them. HR professionals, when asked at a conference, easily identified one or more things that engage them such as respect, reward, challenge, and money among many other things.

Why then is it so confounding when employees show a lack of engagement when the very things that HR professionals identified as engaging for them are missing from the workplace environment?

Under such conditions, attempts at employee engagement turns into a game of manipulation. The fact is sustainable employee engagement, just like sustainable productivity, is only possible in a supportive workplace environment.

Remember the slogan, “Our employees are our most valued asset!” Few people believed it then, even the executives who freely repeated the phrase, and no one believes it now. Astute execs have come to realize that their employees know better than to fall for such a mantra when the work environment does not demonstrate that the employees are genuinely valued.

Faced daily with the challenges of employee engagement, retention, skills enhancement, productivity, and so many other issues common to all contemporary commercial operations, business leaders at all corporate levels would be well-advised to return to the basics of successful workforce management. That means making their employees their most valued asset, not with a slogan but with actions and behaviors that create and sustain a supportive workplace environment.

If retention is the issue, look at the type of environment employees encounter on the job and whether it is a welcoming environment in which to work. If productivity is the issue, look at how the work environment may present undue challenges for employees trying to engage in productive work. If time to autonomy is the issue, look at how the workplace environment may be working at cross purposes to the effective sharing of knowledge and learning.

So, before you get into cognitive science and brain-based research, get into creating and sustaining a supportive workplace environment!

L&D professionals as well as business leaders may find a supportive work environment to be the single most cost-effective piece of equipment in their corporate toolbox.

About The Author
Fred Stawitz
Fred Stawitz, a national award-winning educator and writer, is the author of the inventive new book on employee engagement Don’t Run Naked Through The Office! He has developed effective training programs for the American space shuttle program as well as Shell’s natural gas pipeline and headed up the development of online technical training for one of America’s largest pipeline companies. He has been the featured guest on several television news/talk shows including CNN Headline News – Local Edition in Southern California and a PBS local affiliate special in Pennsylvania, has chaired national HR and HSE conferences, and was quoted in a special Congressional Quarterly Report.
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