When trying to design a learning strategy, learning and development (L&D) professionals often focus heavily on the initial knowledge gained through the learning event or technologies, rather than approaches for long-term information retention and application. So, how can L&D leaders draw on well-established science to ensure the shelf lives of their skills do not decay over time on both an organizational and individual level?

Beyond new technologies that allow for the creation of microlearning experiences (small, bite-sized content that can help “drip feed” information over time), there remain core elements missing from training programs; these core elements are rooted in basic psychology principles, such as motivation and influence tactics, that tap into human emotion and make training stick.

The principles of human motivation go back decades, when many psychologists began to uncover new ideas such as goal-setting theory, needs-based theory and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For training experiences specifically, this article will focus on goal-setting theory, which was originated by organizational psychologist Edwin Locke.

Locke’s theory includes self-efficacy — an individual’s self-confidence in knowing he or she can be successful in a task — and goal commitment — ensuring one is committed to seeing a goal through. Using these continuously-proven principles, learning programs can be designed and leveraged to motivate employees toward high-caliber, efficient work.

There are three critical psychology elements that can help L&D programs sustain skills and make learning engaging, including:

  • Embedding motivational and goal-setting strategies into training
  • Using influence tactics to build emotional connection and appeal with learners
  • Making programs memorable through marketing and branding tactics both before and during the training event
  1. Embed Motivational Strategies in Training Through Goal-Setting

Locke’s goal-setting theory is grounded in the impact of goal commitments, which have been shown to improve individual task performance. When applying this idea to training, one best practice is to ensure learners set goals within and beyond the classroom. By doing so, learners are more likely to commit their time to goal completion and create a learning plan, which can ultimately lead to better performance.

For goal commitment, consider the following tactics:

  • Aligning the individual’s goals with the company’s goals and vision
  • Asking learners to individually set and clearly write down goals that will help them succeed in their current and future roles
  • Ensuring learners’ goals are SMART — specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely
  • Encouraging the learner to openly share his or her goal commitment — for example, with a partner or team member during or immediately after the training
  • Incorporating opportunities that build a learner’s self-confidence in training programs, especially when tasks feel “too challenging,” including practice application opportunities such a as role-plays, video recordings, behavior change reinforcement through feedback and/or real-life practice with a coach

All these strategies work to ensure the learning program’s objectives are both meaningful and timely — and can increase a learner’s motivation to achieve specific goals. By raising a learner’s level of self-efficacy, he or she will likely put more effort into tackling challenging tasks; this increased self-efficacy may also lead to long-term retention and knowledge transfer.

2. Leverage Influence Strategies to Engage and Persuade Learners

Persuasion and influence aren’t just for sales professionals and senior leaders. In fact, many L&D professionals must leverage their own influence strategies to keep their learners’ attention. One notable author and researcher on this topic, over several decades, is Robert Cialdini. Through his work, including “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” Cialdini presents a clear breakdown of the tactics used to influence others, including consensus or “social proof,” liking, authority, reciprocity, consistency and scarcity. Below is a brief overview of these tactics and examples to apply in training: 

  • Consensus or social proof: People are more likely to do something if others are doing it as well. Sharing specific examples of good behavior already seen in a company is impactful. Reference actions from well-respected leaders and leverage best practices from organizational top performers. This strategy will increase awareness of best practices in the industry and will inspire learners to follow suit.
  • Liking: People are more open to opinions from those they like. People learn and seek guidance from those that they’re similar to and that they personally like. Try to find examples that are localized to your office or market to truly have a message resonate in learners. For instance, consider embedding memorable speakers or other internal stakeholders who have a likeability trait to ensure course participation.
  • Authority: People tend to follow people of authority. Quite simply, encourage senior leader involvement in training and/or ask them to help reinforce commitment and goal-setting strategies that ensure people follow those in authoritative positions. Ask trainees to share their goals with senior colleagues who can provide feedback and hold them accountable.
  • Reciprocity: People feel a strong pressure to give to those who gave to them along the way. One way to bring this idea to life through training is to include a mentorship model that involves contributing back to the learning program over time. This might look like a coaching session or paired matching approach to invest in practice opportunities or drive more self-efficacy after the training.
  • Consistency: People will make sacrifices to appear consistent in their actions. If a person agrees to do something, most will do anything to ensure they honor that agreement consistently over time. By writing goals that can be completed alongside daily habits and sharing commitments with others, learners will be encouraged to embed consistent practices as part of their daily routine.
  • Scarcity: Lastly, the more a person sees something as rare, the more valuable it becomes. By building a sense of rarity into a learning program, either through individual sign-ups or limited participation, it can help drive the value of completing the program for any learner.

3. Make Programs Memorable through Marketing and Branding Tactics

Making training stick can also happen before the training begins. By embedding cutting-edge marketing approaches and unique messaging, learners will already be interested in learning before they hit the classroom. Fortunately, L&D and HR professionals don’t need a marketing or communications background to understand that memorable, engaging messaging works to promote programs of all kinds.

Learners, just like any consumer, appreciate creative communications that have an emotional appeal. One way to achieve this appeal is by embedding stories into learning, which helps humans remember information. Leveraging messaging from senior leaders about the importance of attending a specific program, or only opening up a limited number of seats for the training, can help amp up its appeal.

Applying gamification principles to a training program not only makes learning more engaging  but also lures learners into a fun environment that motivates their senses through competition or points-based reinforcement. This tactic can be great for marketing and appeals to many personality types and helps ensure your program is both memorable and long-lasting.

Lastly, a branding strategy that can drive memorable learning programs focuses on creating a theme that makes learning a fun experience. For example, creating a theme (e.g., buzz terms or catchy phrases) through a fun title, related activities, company giveaways/prizes, unique learning content and post-training takeaways can help employees shift from thinking of the training as a mundane requirement to an interactive, fun experience for all.

Knowledge transfer in the modern business world is becoming a complex, intricate process with the addition of new capabilities that extend outside of the classroom…but mobile-accessible and microlearning technologies are simply not enough to enact lasting change. Human motivation tactics, embedded influence strategies and effective marketing are key elements that can lead learners to more quickly adopt new strategies and form long-term commitments to organizational and individual goals, which will have a significant impact on organizations across industries.

As companies move faster and demand change, it’s important to ensure learning programs drive people’s motivation and reinforce key organizational concepts. Encourage learners to set goals that are attainable, realistic, require a sense of ownership and offer a measurable timeline to completion. Additionally, keep learners guessing on what’s next by embedding fun branding strategies, which will also sustain engagement over time. Try something new in your next program to ensure learners have fun on their way to mastering innovative concepts and ideas. But, most importantly, go back to the basics of psychology and leverage the principles of human motivation to ensure a greater likelihood of improved performance over time.