If the 2021 work environment taught anything, it’s that talent flight risk is a very serious concern for business leaders. In fact, government data suggests that over 4 million U.S. workers quit their jobs each month last year. To make matters worse, according to a recent Prudential survey, one-quarter of U.S. workers plan to look for a new job once the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, forecasting the imminent “war for talent.”

To be fair, the war for talent is not a new concept. For example, Silicon Valley’s tech industries have engaged in poaching cycles for decades. However, the problem employers face today is exacerbated by workers no longer feeling connected to their employers in a remote work environment. With a lack of career development among the leading causes of turnover, organizations with limited opportunities for learning can expect an increase in resignations. After all, there is no career growth without learning.

So, at a basic binary level, organizations must provide learning and development (L&D) opportunities, or otherwise, expect to lose their talent.

Organizations have seen this condition for years now — employees increasingly expect their jobs to offer development opportunities. However, these expectations aren’t always met. Gallup research found that although millennials are the most interested in L&D opportunities, that they learned something new in the past 30 days that they can use to do their jobs better. Employees want on-the-job learning experiences to be valuable to their career development and growth.

Understanding What Employees Want from L&D

The question for many companies is how to promote learning as a form of development. The answer is to better understand employees’ learning mindsets (i.e., what workers expect to develop from learning). To understand their employees’ mindsets, employers should provide:

  • Perceived value.
  • Manager support.
  • Acceptance of mistakes.
  • Applicability to role and job function.
  • Organizational culture.

In a TED Talk presentation about skills improvement, speaker Eduardo Briceño shared that while employees justifiably feel strongly about their careers, they tend to spend almost all of their time focused on just doing their jobs, which, ironically, hinders long-term growth and performance.

Research shows that once workers think they have mastered their jobs, they stop seeking opportunities to learn and instead focus on their daily routine. This eventually leads to reduced productivity, engagement and retention across the board. When the focus is too much on just completing tasks, workers miss out on opportunities for growth.

Learning Zone and Performance Zone

Learning leaders need to address skills gaps with training dedicated to learning in a low-stakes environment for making mistakes, obtaining feedback, experimenting and improving skills. This strategy echoes how successful sports programs grow and develop their team members over time. In a low-stakes training environment players can take risks, experiment and improve, leading to stronger growth and performance.

Having the time and space to spend in the learning zone is vital to promote better outcomes in the performance zone.

  • When employees are in the learning zone, the aim is to facilitate improvement through L&D in a simulated work environment.
  • In the performance zone, the aim is for immediate performance through execution, learning in the flow of work while minimizing mistakes.

From an organizational standpoint, stunted career development is the result of performance overshadowing the importance of learning. With only so much time out of a day to perform, productivity typically takes precedence.

However, it is up to learning leaders to merge business goals with employee goals. The organization needs high productivity to meet their goals, and employees need L&D opportunities to meet theirs. Learning experiences should be highly relevant to employees’ career pathway, with involved consideration of their time, the application of the new skills to their work and empathy for employees’ development.

In regard to learning and performance, Briceño says, “the most effective people and teams in any domain go through life deliberately alternating between the learning zone and the performance zone.” The key is for organizations to figure out how to balance time between the learning and performance zone when developing workers’ skills.

Methods to Growing Your Talent

  • Encourage a learning environment. Encourage employees to find a mentor or colleague to exchange ideas with and ask for feedback. Have employees dedicate time to learn while at work through modalities like, online courses, podcasts or reading.
  • Execute in the performance zone. After training employees in the performance zone, provide time for reflection and observation to use when in the learning zone, e.g., what could have been done better?
  • Lower the stakes. As the learning leader, start conversations about skills improvement, share past mistakes, encourage open communication and create a learning zone for employees.

L&D professionals’ responsibility is to maximize learners’ potential by capitalizing on employee growth not only to retain top talent but also to ensure that they can continuously contribute to business goals.

To avoid a performance plateau and the high costs associated with engaging in talent wars, organizations should focus on creating a learning culture — one where employees are safe to experiment, seek feedback, practice and improve their skills, and in which individuals are able to take new risks that encourage endless innovation and growth.