While training may be necessary to employers, the employees will often balk. So, you have to ask, “How do I motivate the reluctant learner?” Like all things instructional design, the answer to this question is, “It depends.”

First, we assume that the employee is otherwise engaged in their job. How to motivate an employee to work, much less actively engage in training, is beyond the scope of this article.

Second, let’s get a working definition of motivation. Richard Clark (2019) defined it as “the willingness to get the job done by starting rather than procrastinating, persisting in the face of distractions, and investing enough mental effort to succeed.”

There are multiple reasons an employee may not be motivated, but let’s address the obvious ones – the ones I didn’t find in the academic literature – first. Don’t be the company that sends employees to safety training one week and have them violate all that they learned in the next week. You’ve not only negated that training, but you’ve also set up the mindset that training doesn’t matter and that employees will ignore anything they are told in training. A related tactic is to send an employee to training but still expect a whole week’s work.  With mixed messages and limited resources, the employee can’t do it all and will fail in one area or the other.

That brings us to self-efficacy, a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in a given task. Bandura’s (1982, 1997) Social Cognitive Theory posits that self-efficacy drives the exertion of mental effort (the cognitive resources used and allocating for learning). In other words, why bother if you won’t succeed? If you want someone to engage in their training, set them up to succeed. Because past successes can increase self-efficacy, make sure your training embeds small victories early on. But you have to balance it – an over-inflated self-efficacy can result in exerting too little effort, probably because they underestimate the amount of mental effort – the cognitive resources used and allocated for learning – required to complete the task. The anticipated level of mental effort is essential. Its graph looks like an inverted “u.” If someone expects too much mental effort (the task is too challenging), they won’t try. However, if they anticipate the task to take minimal cognitive action, they again will minimize how much they put into it. In practicality, this means you should be straightforward about the time and difficulty level of a class. An accurate description allows your learners to plan accordingly and avoid suffering the crisis of confidence that can come when they don’t succeed in something they expected to be easy. Additionally, well-designed training, especially those based on Cognitive Load Theory, can break even complex constructs into manageable sections.

This brings to mind attribution errors, one of Clark’s (2019) four reasons employees lose motivation. Attribution errors come about when a learner is trying to figure out why something negative and unexpected happened. Those who place the blame on something outside their control (e.g., I’m too stupid; the trainer’s test was too hard) are likely to quit trying. You can help motivate this employee by assisting them in concluding that the task is doable, but they hadn’t put in enough effort.

Disruptive emotions such as anxiety, depression, and anger can also impede learning (Clark, 2019). If there is test anxiety, a discussion with the employee is in order. Explain the purpose of the training is to teach and not to fail. Describe the testing process (pen and paper, computer-based, or hands-on) and assure the employee that passing is possible if they pay attention and invest effort. If the course is quite tricky and failing is a possibility, then addressing this will generally fall outside the realm of the training department, along with other types of anxiety, anger, and depression. Your organization probably has a process in place that perhaps involves the supervisor, human resources, and maybe an employee assistance program.

Along with lack of self-efficacy, attribution errors, and disruptive emotions, Clark (2019) discusses a values mismatch – when an employee doesn’t care enough to learn.  Assuming they are otherwise engaged in their job, there are several ways to address this. First, find a way to get the employee interested – perhaps as a challenge or in some way linked to the tasks the employee likes to do.  Another tact is to emphasize the importance and utility of the training, its impact on the employee, the group, or the company.

Most educational theories of motivation involve the constructs of self-efficacy, persistence, and mental effort. Well-designed training can assist in all these. Good training with a balanced cognitive load is doable, even if it takes time and effort. Radiant Digital is well-equipped to help you with your training needs. Reach out to us and see how we can improve your employee’s training.



Clark, R. E., & Saxberg, B. (2019). 4 Reasons Good Employees Lose Their Motivation. Harvard Business Review.

Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37, 122–147.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Macmillan.