Encouraging Employees to Become Lifelong Learners
For years, companies have offered Learning & Development (L&D) opportunities for their employees, including tuition reimbursement for specific degree programs, on-the-job technical training, seminars on “soft skills” like communication, feedback, and emotional intelligence, and education on company policies such as harassment, confidentiality, and the use of technology resources.
But this only scratches the surface of how we can inspire our employees to continue learning throughout their lives.
I want to flip the notion of L&D on its head. What if we approached learning as a wellness benefit?
Just as we institute programs to promote employee physical and mental health, we can offer our team members opportunities to build their cognitive fitness. Harvard Health defines cognitive fitness as “going far beyond memory…[to include] thinking, learning, recognition, communication, and sound decision-making.”(1) Strengthening one’s cognitive fitness can result in an improved ability to…solve problems and deal with stress; it can also increase a person’s openness to new ideas and other perspectives.(2)
Notice that the qualities and skills that can result from enhanced cognitive fitness are the very things we look for when hiring or evaluating employees. I envision four areas in which we can help our employees stretch themselves cognitively and encourage them to become lifelong learners.
As educators, we teach our students how to think critically: to look for the “why” behind what they are learning rather than rote memorization; to not accept something as fact unless it can be supported with logical explanations and evidence.
As employers, we need to develop these same qualities in our teams. Creating an environment in which it is OK to ask questions, research potential solutions, and push the limits helps our team members to grow. Courses that draw on critical thinking can help them build muscle memory that can be applied to their day-to-day work.
Outstanding employees are inquisitive, raising questions that will benefit their team and the company as a whole.
Fostering a Sense of Wonder
Remember what it was like to be a child? How everything you encountered was new, bright, and shiny and just waiting to be tasted or explored?
Just as critical thinking can help us to push for the “why,” viewing our environment with awe and wonder can help us to move outside ourselves, see things from a different perspective, and indulge our curiosity.
Allowing employees to pursue the study of subjects they find fascinating (whether or not these are directly related to their work responsibilities) fosters that childlike drive toward discovery. The fact that they are learning something might be even just as important as the subject matter when it comes to building cognitive fitness.
Learning How to Learn
We have an embarrassment of educational riches at our fingertips. A quick internet search returns a myriad of ways to educate ourselves, including podcasts, TED Talks, LinkedIn Learning, YouTube, and Udemy, among hundreds of others. At no point in history has so much information been so readily accessible. However, the amount of information available can be overwhelming, leaving us needing help to discern which resources are the best.
L&D experts can work directly with team members to clarify their questions and point them in the direction of the right educational tools (apps, blogs, periodicals, podcasts, etc.). Receiving reinforcement and guidance can teach our staff how to research, learn, master, and pass their learning on to other team members and create a learning cycle that continually builds on itself.
Making it OK to Not Be the Expert
We may be viewed as experts in our chosen fields in our work lives. Giving up that elevated status to try something new at the beginner level can be daunting. It’s hard to be new at something and feel that you’re asking “stupid questions” as you learn.
We can improve our cognitive fitness with novel pursuits. Learning something completely new or relearning something long forgotten (like high school French) may open up areas of our brain to flex unused muscles. This openness to starting fresh can carry over to other aspects of our lives.
Science has shown that we stave off the effects of aging when we keep our brains active by trying new things. The pursuit of lifelong learning (whether or not it’s work-related) can increase the quality of our team members’ lives…and maybe just help them inadvertently become better employees thanks to their regular cognitive workouts.
(2) Gilkey, Roderick and Clint Kilts. “Cognitive Fitness”. Harvard Business Review, November 2007
MJ joined LGA in January 2021 after 15 years as a full-time professor of accounting practice. She taught in-person, online, and hybrid courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels with a specialty in Intermediate Accounting and Accounting Information Systems. Prior to academia, MJ spent 18 years in a variety of accounting and information systems roles, including stints as the controller and director of financial reporting for two SEC registrants. MJ began her professional career at Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) where she attained the level of Audit Manager. MJ serves as the Provost of LGA University, with responsibility for coordinating, designing, and teaching courses for staff and clients. She provides consulting services as a member of both our Business Advisory Services (BAS) and Outsourced Management Accounting (OMA) teams. Her industry expertise includes retail, manufacturing, and life sciences. MJ has a passion for identifying and implementing technology solutions.