Can you teach someone who doesn’t want to learn?

More times than I can count, someone has been sent to training, and within 20 seconds I have uncovered that they really don’t want to be there, and this breaks my heart.

My debrief with the line manager at a later date often contains the same themes. The conversation starts with talking about training, but it is really about the team members lack of will, motivation or drive to perform or they are not the right fit for the role. Too often we learn on training instead of looking at the broader performance issues.

[Before I get on into this let me define the word training – training is the development of a specific observable and measurable skill or behaviour. Okay, back to our regular programming]

What’s will?

Will is essentially your drive to do something (motivation). When someone doesn’t have the will to do something, there is very little that training can do in isolation, it’s certainly not going to fix the performance problem.

Why does will and skill matter?

Oh gather round the campfire while I tell you the tale of will and skill (haha). Plotting Will and Skill against each other is one of the easiest ways get a handle on how to resolve a performance concern – it tells you where to start looking. Below is my hand drawn quick reference card. Training should invest in working with people who are identified as medium to high will because they have the desire to implement new skills. This desire will get them through the learning curve (more on that later).

People with lower will need to be approached in a different way. Trainers can assist, but performance improvement initiatives need deep intervention by a line manager to make a difference. These individuals need regular and consistent coaching, expectation setting, reinforcement, check-ins, open discussions and accountability. This is led by the line manager and then training can help with targeted initiatives to build a specific skill area.

My scribbles on Will vs Skill – the cornerstone of deciding if training is the answer

When it’s a motivational issue

Manager Feedback: “They just don’t seem to be getting it, they are really up and down, I think they need to spend time with training to get them back on track and change their mindset”

If I am a manager and I lack the motivation to put my skills into it into practice, it’s likely there is something going on for me that’s not related to the skill itself. In a nutshell, I’m relatively skilled at what I do, I just lack the will to do it for some reason.

The Trainer may be able to facilitate the conversation between parties and may provide targeted assistance ongoing, however it’s the day to day line management, accountability driving and business as usual coaching conversations that make the biggest difference to motivation in the long term.

When it’s a job fit issue

Manager Fit: “I don’t think they are right for the role, they don’t seem to be putting in the effort, but I think if we send them to training this will help us figure it out for sure”.

First things first, you need to assess what expectations have been set, how often someone has reinforced those expectations and the baseline skill level of the person.

If someone has the desire to do the job, but doesn’t have the skills – training is a great suggestion. If they lack the desire and the skills, then that’s not a training issue in isolation.

You need to address the factors that influence motivation if you want to lift performance.

How do I know if someone has the will or the drive?

In the wise words from Oprah – When people show you who they are, believe them.

People show you their motivation in their actions. People who are motivated are actively trying (their efforts might be misdirected if they are learning) but their intention is in line with the expectations.

Will is not potential, it’s not your hope for them or the promise of what they could be, it’s in their actions. Can you see them paddling to the shore or are they happy to be washed with the current. To determine a level of will, start by asking yourself some of these questions and check your reasoning with examples.

  • Do they seek help and advice?
  • Do they invest in their own development?
  • Do they identity their strengths and opportunities?
  • Do they learn from mistakes?
  • Do they consistently action the feedback provided?
  • Do they take up my offers learn from myself or others?
  • Do they show initiative?
  • Do they want to do the job?
  • Do they value managing their time effectively?
  • Do they demonstrate a results focus?

The key words is DO.

So can you teach someone who doesn’t want to learn?

The answer is no, you can’t – you need to address the will or motivation to want to learn first.

Motivation is the fuel that drives our behaviour. You need to get people to shift into the space where they see the value of learning something new. Learning and education starts with mindset.

People will be motivated in one of two ways:

  • Avoidance: Which sounds like, “Fine, I will try it because there is going to be consequences if I don’t shift my mindset and behaviour”; or
  • Approach: Which sounds like, “This seems like a really exciting opportunity for me, I am a little nervous but I will give it a go”.

So I guess the next question is, how do I motivate someone to learn?


Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash

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