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How to Create Self-Directed Employees through Workplace Culture

5 minutes

Self-directed learning, or SDL, brings many gains to a company, which is why it is becoming so popular among businesses large and small. If you want a higher level of self-direction among your employees, consider that most workplace change starts at a cultural level.

Instead of handing down mandates from above, instill a wide variety of opportunities for self-directed learning at every level of your workforce. Because people learn in different ways and are fired by different pursuits, giving lots of choice encourages better and fuller learning. Plus, it’s really in the spirit of self-direction. Here are seven ideas to get you started.

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1. Self-Tests that Help Employees See How Self-Directed They Are

The first step in teaching self-direction is to help employees figure out where they stand in relation to self-direction. You and they may both have a guess, but taking a self-test can point to certain areas where they really need work, and other areas where they’re doing better than either of you thought. Finding strengths and weaknesses can rule out some approaches and support others so you avoid lots of trial and error. If, for example, they have trouble persevering in the face of criticism, then they might benefit from less public learning. If they light up in groups, then peer-to-peer training or brainstorming might be just for them.

2. Peer-to-Peer Training

Speaking of peer training, this is one of the best types of SDL you can instill at your company. If you think about it, it makes no sense to send employees to expensive conferences or subject them to grueling coursework only to learn what other employees already know. Peer-to-peer training can be fun, deepen workplace relationships, and save money all at once.

3. An Institutionalized Spirit of Inquiry

This might look different to every company, but a spirit of inquiry basically boils down to a willingness to ask why. If a team keeps running across the same problems, they should stop and ask why those problems are happening, figure out who can fix them the fastest, and identify what signals precede a full-blown nightmare. This spirit of inquiry must be present in order to turn one-time solutions into time-honored routines that buoy the company to greater success. A spirit of inquiry starts at the top, with leaders who look for solutions instead of blaming, and who happily honor requests for information and sparks of interest among their workers.

4. Clear SDL Resources

One of the biggest problems with SDL is a lack of good resources. Although there is a time and a place to tell employees to “go figure it out,” sometimes the best thing you can do to encourage learning is lay out the materials in plain sight, either figuratively or literally. This includes appropriate meetings, webinars, books, periodicals and e-courses, and offering an open invitation to use them when a worker needs to find an answer or simply has some down time to learn more about their workplace or industry.

5. Self-Directed Goal Setting

Any good corporate culture should already use goal-setting, because it encourages initiative, creates accountability, and fosters incentive in the form of internal satisfaction (for a met goal) and external reward (such as promotion, bonuses or recognition). However, many of these goals will be closely related to the job the employee performs regularly, which is wonderful, but may discourage self-directed learning since that job is already so well outlined. In addition to other goals, allow the employee to choose other, less stringently defined goals based on questions of value and happiness.

6. SDL Mobile Learning to Enrich Commutes

Long commutes, especially for employees who travel or are in the field a lot, can be spent productively if you offer the right tools. Consider mobile learning, which enables opportunities to explore and master new material on the go. Make sure to take device and materials preferences as well as different learning styles into account, as described by the Association for Talent Development.

7. Journal Keeping

Journals help collate ideas, record successes, work through knotty problems, and track progress. The great thinkers and creators throughout history have all used journals, so encourage the same in your workers. A well-kept journal boosts free thinking by making a place for those “wilder” ideas that might just launch your company to success.

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that cultural change doesn’t happen overnight, and you shouldn’t expect it to. It is also possible that you won’t be able to make everything work for you. At workplaces where there isn’t a high degree of education required for workplace productivity, for instance, journaling might be a more frustrating than enlightening pursuit. At tech-oriented workplaces, where lots of organization and regimentation is the norm, you may need to work harder to find appropriate quality resources for continual learning.

You can also learn more about how to structure your work environment for SDL.

Try several different ideas and see what works and what clashes with your preexisting culture. Don’t wed yourself to any one idea, but rather take feedback from the employees and peers supposed to be doing the learning. Use and enrich what works, and leave the rest. The whole point, after all, is learning, not creating another set of ironclad rules. Right?

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