Learning and development (L&D) teams seek to influence employee performance in a variety of ways — from performance support seamlessly integrated into an employees’ workflow to immersive virtual experiences. However, when it comes to long-lasting behavior change, research suggests that L&D might be underutilizing the most powerful factor of all: the learner’s manager.

Managers hold a lot of influence in the work environment. They have an influence on who is hired, who is promoted, how their employees work every day, employees’ motivation and engagement levels and more. So, it goes without saying that managers also have an influence on their employees’ professional development and learning transfer.

Research consistently shows that a supportive manager has a profound effect on not only how much employees learn from L&D programs, but most importantly, what they transfer from training and apply to their role. Yet, L&D professionals tend to overlook the managers’ influence on learning, and instead focus efforts on those receiving the training. When L&D leaders take this approach, they limit the impact of learning, thus putting their learners at a serious disadvantage.

Let’s take a look at how influential managers can be when it comes to employee development, and how L&D teams can leverage this influence to promote learning transfer.

The Goal of Learning Transfer

Learning transfer — applying what is learned in training to one’s role — is the primary goal for all training programs. However, many L&D initiatives have a disappointing return on investment as the majority of trainees fail to transfer what they learn and apply it to their role. One study, “suggests that as little as 10% of all training interventions successfully reach their goal.

Considering the time and money that companies spend delivering training initiatives, it is imperative that we leverage every opportunity to increase the effectiveness of our L&D programs and offerings.

There are multiple factors that influence learning transfer. In fact, over 100 separate factors have been identified by learning transfer researchers. These factors can loosely be grouped into: learners’ personal characteristics (such as their motivation and self-efficacy), organizational factors (such as team norms and peer support) and factors related to the design of the learning program itself (such as valid and relevant content).

Researchers, Knyphausen-Aufseß, Smukalla and Abt, conducted a meta-analysis of over 50 different studies on the topic of learning transfer. The researchers compared various studies to identify which factor has the most power and influence when it comes to learning transfer. The researchers concluded that supervisor support is fundamental to learning transfer and recommend that it not be overlooked by L&D practitioners.

Get The Manager Involved in L&D

In L&D, the aim is for learners to return to their roles with new skills that are hopefully more effective than before. However, L&D often focuses too much on providing learners with more content in a variety of formats with not enough support in developing the behaviors the business needs for success. L&D professionals must augment their focus beyond helping people to learn new things that increase their knowledge and skills, but strive to support employees to apply their learning in the work environment, transferring learning into performance.

The training environment is L&D’s area of expertise. However, in the work environment — where learning is transferred to performance — the manager holds the most influence. Partnership is required between the L&D function and line managers for development opportunities to be turned into repeated behaviors that impact the results the business wants to see.

Unlock A Manager’s Power in Learning Transfer

1.) Talk like a manager.

In conversations with line managers use the language they use every day. Managers are charged with increasing team effectiveness, improving capabilities and achieving business objectives. So, use language that matches what they are driving toward, rather than L&D-centric terms, to generate buy-in.

2.) Train managers to lead learning.

Research indicates that the more managers are trained in how to support and coach their employees’ skills development, the more those skills will be used and sustained in the workplace. Researchers Sookhai and Budworth, trained managers on how to provide their employees with opportunities to use their learned skills on the job, and how to reinforce attempts at application. The employees reported feeling more supported, perceived their workplace more positively, had higher self-efficacy and experienced higher rates of learner transfer than employees whose managers did not go through the training. Those effective results were achieved through a single 90-minute training.

If your company doesn’t offer separate training for managers who are supporting employee development, the next best thing is to have managers attend the same training as their employees. Having an increased understanding of what their employees are learning will give the manager greater insight into what support they can provide. It also allows managers to use their familiarity with their team to identify areas of improvement.

3.) Encourage one-on-one time with employees.

One-on-one time with employees is one of the most important meetings in a manager’s week. It’s a time for managers to build trust with employees, discuss issues and check in on work assignments. These meetings provide the optimal environment for managers to display genuine interest in their employees’ development and demonstrate their support in what they’re learning and the learning transfer process.

It’s also a great opportunity for managers to let employees know of their expectations — that simply attending training is not enough. The skills and knowledge from training must be applied for lasting impact.

Managers should also let their employees know that they are excited to discuss what was learned after training. There is an element of timing here; if the manager can communicate this before an employee’s next training session, it will increase the employee’s motivation to learn and how much attention they provide during the session. This is because they know that their manager is interested and will want to hear more. This may seem like a large time commitment for managers, but this can be achieved in as little as a 15-minute discussion before and after training.

4.) Clear the runway for landing.

When employees complete a training session and return to work, they are often greeted with a pile of work that accumulated while they were participating in the session. It’s here that the learning transfer process often breaks down. If employees can implement some of what they learned right after training, they are much more likely to continue to use those new skills and behaviors. But if they are overwhelmed with emails and requests, it’s unlikely that they will attempt to use their new skills.

Managers should ensure that employees have the opportunity to practice new skills following training. As a best practice, managers should neither send employees work during training or schedule training during busy periods, since learning transfer is extremely unlikely in times of high work pressure.

If possible, managers should reduce the workload of employees after training, so that they have the bandwidth to transfer learning into their performance. Not only will this increase the chances of learning transfer, but it will also send a clear message to employees that their professional development is important.

5.) Embark on the learning journey together.

Leveraging the support of the line manager is a massive area of improvement for L&D. Learning leaders need to get the learner’s manager on their side and align their approaches with the manager’s to improve performance. The manager is the “L&D team” in the work environment. They know the employees better than we ever could. They know their likes and dislikes, their workload and their strengths and weaknesses. When L&D teams get a training request, we conduct a learning needs analysis (LNA).

The LNA pales in comparison to the in-depth understanding a manager builds with their employees. A manager is constantly analyzing, observing and understanding their team and is attuned to their peoples’ needs at a much greater level than any LNA could capture.

So, if we want our learning initiatives to be turned into action, we in L&D can no longer ignore the presence and power of the manager. When all is said and done, L&D and line managers have the same goal: For employees to strive for excellence and perform at their peak. If we both want the same thing, let’s work together to achieve it.

Register for the Spring Training Industry Conference & Expo (TICE) to hear Fergal Connolly’s session, “Align Management with L&D Initiatives to Maximize Learner Performance.”