How Can We Motivate Employees to Learn?

How can an organization motivate its staff to learn and improve their performance? This has always been a question during my career as a learning professional. Obviously, training is not the answer. Because if an employee is not motivated to use what they learned (considering the program was well-designed and relevant), they simply choose not to apply what they learned. But there is more to it and we can’t always hold the staff accountable for applying what they learned. It involves the expertise of learning professionals, leadership style, work environment, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation of staff, and their self-efficacy.

Let’s start with distinguishing between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Many organizations believe reward and punishment are great tools to motivate their staff to improve their performance. However, scientific studies show that it is not effective all the time. The very first study that proved intrinsic motivation is more rewarding than extrinsic motivation was conducted by Harlow on monkeys. He was the one who came up with theory of intrinsic motivation.

Harlow’s monkeys were given puzzles to solve without being taught and rewarded. Interestingly, the monkeys soon started playing with them and seemed enjoying it. Harlow was baffled what is driving them to do this without any rewards. It turned out the monkeys solved the puzzles because they found it gratifying. In other words, the joy of the task was its own reward.

Harlow decided to reward the monkeys and see what happens. As you might guess, they made more errors and solved the puzzles less frequently. Decades later, Edward Deci studied humans and he found the same results. According to him, “human beings have an inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn.”

Whereas these studies have shown the effectiveness of intrinsic motivation repeatedly, organizations still prefer to choose the ‘carrot and stick’ method for their employees. As Daniel Pink put it, there has been a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

Unfortunately, we tend to persist on many theories, which might have worked fine many years ago, but they don’t have any impact now. We don’t consider how people and organizations are changing. In the 1900s, it was believed that work is a series of mundane tasks, and the only way to get people to do them is to incentivize them. But many studies after that proved this wrong. In fact, experiments like that of Deci’s have demonstrated that human beings perform better when they are not incentivized, or it reduces their intrinsic motivation. Further, not all the jobs are mundane and boring. Today’s jobs have become more interesting and complex. Nevertheless, the reward approach has been proven effective for mundane and repetitive tasks in that there is no intrinsic motivation involved in it. This means, in short, incentivizing interesting jobs may result in the negative effect, so performance will suffer. Bottom line is, do not incentivize tasks that are already high in intrinsic motivation!

Human being is more motivated to learn new things that are interesting. Using contingent rewards—if you do this, you’ll get this—will reduce the person’s intrinsic motivation, and even diminish their performance, because they are no longer thinking creatively. Moreover, rewards are addictive. If a company keeps giving rewards to motivate its staff to learn new skills, their employees will soon become addictive to it and expect a reward all the time.

You might be asking how. Simply put, the person will focus on the reward rather than thinking of all the possibilities that can carry out a task. In other words, their creativity is crushed. If it’s a routine task, rewards can work. Rewards do not undermine people’s intrinsic motivation for dull tasks because there is little or no intrinsic motivation to be undermined. All in all, consider the task before deciding to offer rewards.

For routine tasks, you could use principles of adult learning to increase your chances of success:
1) provide a rationale for why the task is necessary
2) acknowledge that the task is boring. With this you show some empathy
3) allow people to complete the task their own way

Needless to say, employees would be more motivated if they knew the new knowledge and skills would improve their performance. This is our role, as learning professionals, to ensure when designing training programs. What we need to do further is involving the managers and supervisors to ensure they endorse the program’s effectiveness and support their staff after the program. There is a large body of research highlighting the importance of environment to maximize learning transfer.

There are, of course, other factors such as self-efficacy which we don’t have control over. However, organizations can certainly play a role in changing their employees’ mindset and confidence. What Carol Dweck refers to as growth mindset is something that can be developed in people who have a fixed mindset and simply believe they don’t have the talent to do something. In other words, if managers have a growth mindset themselves and share their efforts in excel in something, they can indirectly influence their subordinates. Moreover, they can motivate their staff to learn new things and improve their performance.

All in all, increasing employees’ motivation to learn calls for learning professionals who are fully aware of literature in learning transfer, growth mindset, deliberate practice, as well as leaders who model and influence their subordinates to better their skills. After all, learning is not limited to training. Employees can be learning all the time, so the environment they work at can provide this opportunity or impede any interest in learning or training.


Pink, D. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Riverhead books.