Learning Anxiety – and Making Training Stick

Edgar Schein, an author and consultant on change management points out that when a person is confronted with the prospect of learning something new, a “learning anxiety” is created.  The learner’s learning anxiety interferes with their applying the newly learned skill.  The list below contains some of the more common sources of learning anxiety, each with a suggestion or two for learning professionals to reduce or eliminate them (which Schein calls creating psychological safety).

  1. Fear of temporary incompetence or punishment for incompetence.  Trainers should be sure to include ample time in class for practice or assign “homework” practice in between class sessions.  Also, trainers should make trainees’ managers aware of skills being taught and suggest allowing “safe practice” opportunities in the first days/weeks/months after training.  If this isn’t possible, suggest more frequent work reviews for awhile and/or tandem performance (two employees working together), to create a safe environment for using new skills.

  2. Fear of loss of personal identity.  When people are asked to use behavior that is unlike their customary behavior, such as in communication, management, or customer service training, it is often hard for them to give up old behavior patterns.  Trainers can ease learners  into changes like this with lots of performance modeling – videos demonstrating the new skills, and role modeling – managers who use the skills visit the class (live or via video) and talk about their journey transitioning from the old behavior patterns to the new.  Post-training coaching is also helpful to assist the learner with modifying their personal identity to include the new skills.

  3. Fear of loss of group membership.  Being “one of the gang” extends to “doing like the rest of the gang.”  If everyone in the department does something one way it will be harder for the newly trained team member to do it differently.  Trainers should consider training members of the same department at the same time or within a short time period of time.  It will also be helpful to have a discussion in the training about differences between what is being taught in class and how things are “really done” on the job.  Doing this provides an opportunity to talk about advantages of doing things according to the training.Schein points out that “survival anxiety” (desire to advance in one’s career, fear of being fired) interacts with learning anxiety to motivate the learner to make the change – or not.  The greater the survival anxiety, the easier it is to overcome learning anxiety.

  4. Make a point of mentioning throughout the class or elearning module: how the skills being taught will help the participant build their resume, be valued more highly by management, advance to the next level, score well on their next review.   The beginning of class is typically when this is done, but it’s even more effective if sprinkled throughout the class.

It is up to those of us in the learning and development arena to help learners and their managers capitalize on survival anxiety and reduce learning anxiety!

Until next time…

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