A simple guide to improve manager engagement with workplace learning

A LinkedIn Learning report found 46% of employees discover learning programmes through their management or leadership. Combine that with 69% of L&D professionals leverage management and leadership to promote learning, and its clear we have a heavy reliance on manager engagement with workplace learning.

But what happens when they don’t engage?

You know the type. They don’t engage with learning initiatives, cancel their employees off learning last minute and their employees are usually the last to know of any fantastic opportunities you’ve got available for development (if they even find out at all!).

Your initial reaction is likely to feel frustrated with these managers. They’re withholding opportunities for their team to develop, which will likely lead to skills-gaps, underperformance and in-turn, disengagement.

But before you throw in the towel completely, consider this article first. I’m sharing my tried and tested tips on manager engagement, when it comes to workplace learning.

What makes managers resistant to workplace learning in the first place?

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the managers perspective and the pressures or challenges they may face. Consider how they may perceive the investment in learning, from both a budget and time perspective.

Below are some likely responses you may receive if you take the time to ask them, which I recommend you do.

  • ‘The learning isn’t directly relevant to the role’
  • ‘We’re too busy for training’
  • ‘Haven’t got the time or capacity to help them implement the learning when they return’
  • ‘Can’t afford to invest in learning for my employees’
  • Don’t have the time to support the follow-on work’

These responses might make you roll your eyes, you’ve heard it all before.  However, if this is their genuine concern you need to help the manager remove these perceived barriers to engagement.

By shrugging their answers off as ‘an excuse’, you miss a golden opportunity for influence.

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How to engage managers with workplace learning

There are four key elements to consider to engage managers in workplace learning.

Relationship, relationship, relationship:

The clue here is in the title, the relationship is by far the best way to get that manager onboard with any learning initiatives. I find I get so much more from managers I’ve taken the time to build a relationship with, yes even the difficult ones!

Engage managers in workplace learning - relationship first, task second.

Your ability to influence, which is key to changing their mindset to learning, lies beyond having a relationship only when you require their support. Develop a relationship first, task second mindset, by building a relationship that is wider than the task. Dependant on the size of your company this may become slightly more difficult. If you have a larger pool of managers, invest your time on those that are most challenging or resistant to engage in workplace learning.  

Once you’ve built the relationship you can focus on understanding their perspective. By building the relationship first, you increase your influence, which will encourage the manager to share their challenges. More importantly, building the relationship makes you more open to hearing and appreciating their challenges too, rather than dismissing them.

The saying knowledge is power is apt here, the more you get to know the manager the easier it will be to influence their perspective and engage them in the future.

To learn more about influence, I’d recommend reading the book: Influence without Authority by Bradford and Cohen

Focus on the bigger picture

Manager engagement with workplace learning - Share with them the bigger picture image

Talk big picture

Now you’ve spent the time building your relationship, you’ve raised your influence. Meaning you can focus on helping the manager see the bigger strategic picture regarding workplace learning. Below is a suggested response you could use:

  • ‘Yes, you understand their perspective and [insert their reason here] could be perceived as an inconvenience.  A LinkedIn Learning survey found that 94% of employees would stay with a company longer if there was an investment in learning. Do you really want to lose your most talented and valuable employees over short term issues?’

What’s the purpose?

Help them see the purpose behind the learning and why it’s important to engage. Go as big as you can here. Provide the manager with how the workplace learning benefits the individual, the line manager and the company. One of them is likely to strike a chord.

If you can’t clearly answer why it would be beneficial to that manager. Then either the training isn’t truly meeting their root cause needs, or you need to rethink your pitch by revisiting the challenges shared whilst relationship building.

Notice if they’re more people or task focused and use this to tailor your response. If they’re people focused remind them of the impact on people i.e. motivation, supporting their team etc. If they’re task focused, remind them of the business impact i.e. return on bottom line, efficiency etc.

  • ‘You’ve shared with me [xxxxx] about your employees. Well this learning can help because of [XYZ reason], therefore by engaging with it and sending your employees they gain [xxxxx] and you gain [xxxxx] back in performance/engagement/learning etc. Even better, the business also gains [xxxxxx]’. Is this really something you can afford not to engage with?

The devils in the detail

Data can also be helpful, even more so if they’ve got a task focused preference. Do you have any data you can share that might help the manager realise their lack of engagement in workplace learning?

This could either be the obvious attendance (or lack of!) data, or if your company is data savvy more comparative and/or correlative data.

Comparative data could be a comparison to other similar internal departments that engage with workplace learning. Correlative data could compare historical years of performance for that team and a correlation with engagement in workplace learning.

  • I just wanted to share with you some trends I’ve noticed in the data. I’m interested to get your perspective. There seems to be a downward trend in performance, could this have any link to the lack of learning? Or team [Insert a comparative team here} are a similar size and the same level of expected output as your team but their [insert metric here i.e. engagement, turnover, performance etc] is [higher/lower]. I’ve made a comparison in training data and noticed a higher level of engagement, what do you make of that?

Set clear expectations

Manager engagement with workplace learning - Share with them your expectations visual

Engage managers as early as possible in workplace learning.

Keep them informed prior to the learning and regularly updated throughout so they understand what’s involved and can support. A lot of managers simply don’t know what their employees are doing to be able to support the implementation of learning into the workplace.

When it comes to their role in transfer of learning into the workplace. Remember they have a lot of competing priorities and learning isn’t usually top of the agenda (frustrating sometimes, I know).

If there are expectations for managers to engage pre or post learning. Make sure they know long in advance and explain why these elements are equally, if not more important than the learning intervention itself.

Finally, map out any time commitments in advance, so they can plan it into theirs and their teams’ schedules. Remind them what was agreed to upfront or schedule time in their diary, so their support is arranged for them.

This might all sounds simple, but lack of planning is often a barrier to managers engaging in workplace learning.

Take some personal responsibility

Manager engagement with workplace learning - take personal responsibility by removing any barriers to learning.

Sure, its much easier to pin all the blame on the difficult manager who doesn’t engage but I encourage you to take a step back and take some personal responsibility in this. Remember the relationship works both ways.

  • Are you arranging training at unsuitable times for the peaks/troughs of their workload?
  • Are you able to shorten the training or move it online to suit their needs?
  • Will the learning truly be of benefit the employee, line manager and business?

Whilst removing barriers to engagement, you should also consider if the learning itself is a barrier. Through building the relationship and better understanding the managers needs you will get an appreciation if the learning itself is the barrier.

If you’re unable to self-reflect and answer these questions, focus on building the relationship and understanding the managers barriers to engagement. Then you’re able to plan to meet their needs and raise their engagement.

The steps provided in this article will help you increase your manager engagement with workplace learning and remove the barriers. As an L&D professional, you’ve got the skills-set required to build and maintain the relationship. Shift your focus to the relationship first, and you’ll be amazed how quick the rest will follow.

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