Under adverse or antagonistic conditions, even your best performers may need reminding that they are obligated to continuously improve their performance. There are times, however, when the motivation to learn and embrace new ways of thinking is just not there. When that happens, you could wait until the spirit moves them again, or you could show them how to become self-directed learners.

Assuming you take the proactive approach, the first question you have to ask is, do they recognize the need to learn? If the answer is no, that’s where you start. If the answer is yes, then the next question is, are they ready to learn new skills? If that answer is yes, then provide the requisite training.

Conversely, if the answer is no, then your objective is clear: Motivate them to learn by making them aware of what they do not know and why it is important to acquire additional knowledge. Training can be a motivating experience, provided the trainees recognize and accept the purpose of the training beforehand.

Typically, underachievers have little interest in learning without some external stimulation. Understanding how learning takes place incrementally in four stages can help you assess the need for training and the motivation to learn.

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

Trainees are unaware of the possibility that they are making costly mistakes or doing poor-quality work. Their unacceptable performance is obvious to others but not to them. The potential for incompetency is high, because they are not motivated to learn new skills.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

Trainees become aware that their performance is having a negative effect on outcomes. They are mindful of their shortcomings and eager to remedy their discomfort and avoid future mistakes. They are ready to improve their skills, because their motivation to learn is high.

Stage 3: Conscious Competence

Trainees are in the comfort zone where they are pleased with their newfound knowledge and the satisfaction that comes from performing well. They have overcome adversity and upgraded their capabilities. They proudly seek opportunities to demonstrate their new skills. Satisfied with the situation, their motivation to learn is low.

Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

Trainees perform their job with little thought to preparing for the challenges that lie ahead. Unaware of their potential shortcomings, they are only a short step away from losing their competitive edge. Satisfied with the status quo, they have no motivation to learn.

A Case Study: Joe’s Dilemma

Joe is a line operator in a high-tech manufacturing company. As a loyal employee, he had been running the cutting machine for years with no complaints. Things began to change when the company raised the production quota and Joe’s rejection rates started to climb. Whenever one of the quality checkers tried to tell him about the defects, Joe became upset, saying, “This is my machine and no one tells me how to run it.” He continued working in the same inefficient way.

In stage 1, Joe was unaware of his poor performance, yet his incompetence was obvious to his supervisor. He would not accept that there was a problem and therefore had no motivation to learn.

Joe’s situation changed abruptly one morning when he was told to shut down his old machine and help install a new one. The new machine incorporated the latest computer-assisted technology. Joe panicked, because he had no idea how to operate this fancy new monster. Suddenly, he understood the need to improve his skills (stage 2). Joe was motivated to learn, because his job was in jeopardy.

After an intensive three weeks of classroom training and on-the-job coaching, Joe was able to run the machine at minimal speed. He kept up with the workflow and performed almost error-free. By applying his newfound knowledge, he was able to cut mostly perfect pieces and meet the production schedule. His familiarity with the new machine placed him in a comfortable state of mind, and he felt great, knowing he was good at his job (stage 3).

After a few days, Joe began to relax and enjoy his success. Everything was under control. The job had become routine, and his performance was good enough, as far as he was concerned. Operating the new machine with confidence, Joe was not looking for ways to improve (stage 4).

When the other machine operators had completed their training and been given time to practice, the production pace was accelerated to the maximum speed. Joe settled into a comfortable routine, just like his situation before the training. As the performance demand increased, it was not long before the quality of his work began to slide. Joe again became incompetent, but he was not aware of it. He was back where he started (stage 1).

Vulnerability Is the Key to Learning

Being willing to admit that you are wrong about what you thought you knew can be intimidating. The first thing Joe’s supervisor should do is determine is whether he is aware that his performance had fallen off. If not, his supervisor should bring it to his attention by making him conscious of his incompetence. If he is aware, then the supervisor’s objective should be to motivate him to set his sights higher and support him when he does. Because this situation is awkward, Joe is probably eager to learn so he can regain his comfort and confidence. By accepting the challenge of discovering what he does not know, Joe becomes a learner.

Learners have something special working in their favor: the innate human motivation to do a good job, which triggers a willingness to acknowledge their own incompetence. Learners are also willing to put up with a certain amount of discomfort during the training process in order to experience the end result – recognition of a job well done. Each time learners accept that they do not know something and want to learn what it is, they are signaling their willingness to examine old habits, think in new ways and acquire additional skills.

In a learning culture, the needs and interests of leaders and followers are purposefully called into question, opened up for examination and carefully measured to determine whether anything is out of alignment. When learners identify the discrepancy and put it back in working order, they develop a sense of accomplishment. Confident in their skills, they look forward to doing their job better. What happens next can be thought of as the “best practices” stage – a time to show off new skills and set new records.