What is Social Learning Theory?
Let’s go back to the classroom with some “Psychology 101.” Social learning theory combines:
- Cognitive learning theory, which focuses on a person’s mind as they learn. It’s the study of how the brain processes information and responds.
- Behavioral learning theory that studies how people learn from what they observe.
Social learning combines the study of nature (cognitive learning) and nurture (behavioral learning) for a “best of both worlds” approach to understanding human behavior. It’s not just what they observe, but how a person processes what they see, that influences human behavior.
Social learning theory isn’t new, it was first coined in 1977 by psychologist Albert Bandura, but it is becoming ingrained in workplace best practices. Social learning has four main components:
- Attention. Is the person noticing the behavior? Is it grabbing their attention?
- Retention. Does the person remember this behavior? Do they reproduce the behavior soon after seeing it?
- Reproduction. Does the person have the ability to perform the same behavior? Are they limited by physical ability to perform the same behavior? This component often applies to skilled physical movements–a person might love watching professional ballet but has physical limitations that keep them from reproducing the same movements.
- Motivation. Is a person motivated, positively or negatively, to repeat the behavior? Do the rewards outweigh the punishment? Is there any reinforcement in place that encourages repetition?
Social learning is about what people see, and how they choose or learn to repeat the behaviors. We’re both a product of what we observe and what we think about what we observe.
Why Does Social Learning Theory Matter in the Workplace?
As you might guess, social learning is an important element in the workplace. We know that employees value learning in the workplace, and the more time and capital a company can invest in their team, the higher the retention rate.
75% of the workplace is now comprised of Millennials, and they don’t want to learn from manuals and formal training sessions. The older model of day-long training or formal training structures fall behind compared to the accelerated teachings with tools like YouTube, Lynda, or Coursera. In general, business moves faster nowadays more than ever, and so too should the speed of learning. Implementing social learning in the workplace won’t only encourage the retention of the growing Millennial workforce, it’ll help your team learn more, faster.
Social learning can also create connections and ideas across the company that may have not existed before. If employees feel empowered to learn, they can reach out to teammates, bosses, and executives for knowledge sharing. It can create a more cooperative, informal workplace.
One drawback of social learning in the workplace is spreading and repeating bad behaviors. If you’re letting toxic behaviors slide in the workplace, teammates are more likely to see the behavior as acceptable and pick it up. As a leader or founder, you need to look critically at your team and pinpoint undesirable behaviors that might be spreading.
How Can Leaders Foster Social Learning at Work?
Fostering social learning in the workplace might seem daunting. How can you formally institute an informal learning network? Part of it is putting systems in place to foster learning, and part of it is leading through the actions you take:
- Foster informal learning systems. Asking your team to download and use an informal chat tool like Slack is a simple, yet dramatic way to change how everyone communicates. It can break down barriers between teams, departments, and seniority that you might’ve not even been aware of. It’s a small, yet mighty step in the direction of social learning.
- Show and tell. As a leader in the workplace, you can remove the mystery around what motivates your work. Be transparent about what you do, and what thought processes you went through to reach the decision.
- Share knowledge. Lunch and learns are nothing new, but these easy to implement events are textbook social learning in the workplace. Host informal learning sessions during the office lunch hour, catering or encouraging teammates to bring their own bag lunch. Ask teammates to prepare 30-45 minute informal chats about what they do (work or non-work related), leaving space for others to ask follow up questions. Not only will this lead to learning something new over lunch, but it’ll also break the ice around the office, making it easier for teammates to connect, collaborate, and learn in the future.
Social learning happens in the modern workplace, whether you plan for it or not. People will find tools to learn on their own, and they can’t help but pick up behaviors they observe in others. However, consciously engaging your workplace in social learning means focusing on helpful learning behaviors that strengthen your team for the better.