How To Overcome Self-Inflicted Obstacles To Learning

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If you arent learning you arent growing, and if you arent growing youre dying.

As important as learning is to professionalism in our industry, how many of us are really good at it?

Agents and management often say that training and education are critical to their success, but they struggle to accomplish their continuing education requirements, complain about the difficulty of learning how to use new technological tools, use ineffective procedures rather than learn new ones and sometimes find themselves in the uncomfortable position of discussing products they arent familiar with.

In an earlier article (see NU, Aug. 5, 2002) I discussed the barriers to training created by the people who develop training and companies. It is true that the people who create training and education have some of the responsibility for the difficulty people have in learning. However, the learner also has responsibility. Adult learners are often too quick to blame companies and trainers for problems with learning when some of the blame is their own–due to self-inflicted obstacles to learning.

The first step in removing those self-inflicted barriers is to identify them. Once you know what they are, the next step is to accept responsibility for them. Agents and managers need to confront their attitudes and approaches toward learning so that they can remove them.

Learning is hard work for most people and it is common for us to run into difficulty or experience frustration when learning new skills and knowledge. If the learner accepts responsibility for the problem, he or she will be motivated to solve it. However, if the learner blames the trainer, the training program or other factors instead of accepting responsibility for the problem, it is unlikely that he or she will get anything out of the training.

The following are some common examples of self-inflicted obstacles to learning. Which ones do you have?

–Devaluing Training: “Its Not Worth the Time and Effort.”

One of the most common self-inflicted obstacles is to devalue the investment in time and energy required by learning. Believing that training and education doesnt have a payoff in increased productivity decreases motivation and creates a psychological barrier to retention because of the attitude that “Im not going to get anything out of this.”

This attitude is sometimes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe training is not worthwhile, you will avoid it or reject it. If forced to deal with it, you will not take it seriously enough to gain real value from it. This is sometimes the attitude agents and managers have toward continuing education.

–Training Is Just Theory: “Training is Impractical, I Cant Use It.”

Another common attitude that decreases motivation and blocks retention is that training doesnt increase sales or improve productivity because it isnt practical. The real payoff from training comes from applying what is learned. Sometimes this is difficult. Though applying what is learned may be difficult because the training was not designed properly, sometimes the reason is that the agent or manager does not actively try to apply what they have learned to their actual work. They view what they learn as facts and ideas rather than solutions to everyday problems because their attitude blocks them from putting into action what they learned.

–Taking A Passive Approach: “Ill Find Time for That, Sometime.”

Agents and managers sometimes approach training and education from the point of view that they are passive activities that are fit into their normal business schedule whenever there is some free time. They think they are learning when they listen to a training tape while driving in their car in rush hour, talking on the cell phone and drinking a cup of coffee. They skim a brochure or manual while waiting for a meeting to start and expect to learn the information in it. That isnt the right approach. It gives the impression that learning is going on when it isnt. It lulls agents and managers into a false sense of building skills and knowledge.

Agents and managers should approach training and education as an activity that has specific goals and objectives. They should develop a plan to accomplish those goals and then carry out the plan.

–Being Disorganized: “Theres Never Enough Time.”

Interruptions are common in most agents and managers days, but interruptions disrupt the flow of learning. Most learners need uninterrupted time to concentrate and learn. But often, agents and managers treat training and education as a low priority that is sacrificed for other activities. Too often, agents and managers start training and education programs and never complete them.

An organized approach to training requires less effort than a disorganized approach and less motivation since progress in learning the information gives a sense of accomplishment.

In addition, many agents and managers do not examine their training and education goals to determine if they have the right prerequisites, resources or materials available when they begin their training or education. A disorganized approach to learning results in inefficient and ineffective learning.

–Negative Reactions to Required Training: “You Cant Make Me Learn.”

Whether it is required for maintaining a license or contract or is just mandated by a company, agents and managers often have little choice but to participate in training. If this causes a negative reaction and resistance on their part to learning, then this will be a barrier to learning anything presented in the training.

–Avoidance of Change: “Im Not Interested in Doing It Differently.”

To successfully accomplish some learning objectives requires change and change is often difficult. New products, policies, procedures, technology and new ways of doing things can often spark resistance. When training is part of the process of change, it becomes a target for resistance that decreases motivation for the training and creates a barrier to learning. Yet, often the key to being able to assimilate change is the ability to learn new things efficiently and effectively.

Now that we have seen what some of the obstacles are, the issue becomes what can be done to get them out of the way.

First, identify the obstacles that you typically create when faced with learning something. Examine those obstacles, admit that they are a barrier and commit to becoming a more effective learner. Once you accept responsibility for making yourself an effective and efficient learner, there are a number of ways to remove obstacles and improve learning skills.

1) Before you start the training, identify its value and how its been made to pay off. Make a note to yourself about how to get value out of the training and review that note periodically to keep you motivated and focused. Identify the parts of the training that have the greatest potential pay off and concentrate on them. Challenge the trainer (if there is one) to help you make the training practical and worthwhile.

2) Develop a plan for accomplishing the learning. Include in your plan how you will make the training pay off. If the amount of information, skills and knowledge to be learned is significant, break the entire learning task into meaningful segments so that you can plan and carry out accomplishing one goal at a time. For example, when learning about a new product, how it operates is one goal, how to sell it is another goal, and its administrative aspects are a third goal.

3) Put the training in context of what you already knowsimilar products, similar situations and similar procedures. By looking at learning new skills and knowledge in the content of what you already know you can identify what you need to learn that is new and simplify the learning process.

4) Keep application and practicality in mind throughout the training. Ask yourself, your fellow trainees and the trainer for ideas on how to use what is being learned. End every training segment by reviewing what you have learned and how you can apply it. Test out how to apply those new skills and knowledge learned during the training rather than waiting until the end of the program.

5) Set aside enough time without interruptions to accomplish your learning objectives. Make the investment of your time and effort pay dividends by not short-circuiting the learning process. Pace your learning so that you can absorb what is being presented. At the end of every learning session, review whether you made good use of the time set aside for it. Modify your schedule and approach to maximize the value of the time invested in learning.

6) Create the right environment for learning. Have the materials you need and be in the right frame of mind. Learning is hard work and you cant do it when you are tired or distracted.

7) Identify what must be memorized and what you can rely on from reference sources. Focus on what must be memorized and the tools and aids that can support the use of the information. Remember that not everything needs to be memorized and that good reference sources, notes and aids can make the job of learning and applying what you learned easier.

8) Dont lose sight of the forest for the trees. Though you may be inundated with details, keep the goal and value of the training in mind. Remind yourself to look for the conceptual aspects of the training. For example, getting immersed in the numbers in an illustration should not blind you to the underlying concepts and ideas that you need to be able to communicate with those numbers.

9) If forced to attend training, dont just reject it–find ways to make it valuable. Perhaps the professional or social interactions with other trainees can be of value or you can find something in the training that you can use as a bridge to learn something of value.

10) Periodically stop the process of acquiring new skills and knowledge and test yourself on what you have learned. Testing yourself helps identify gaps and solidify what you have learned.

, PhD, CLU, ChFC is a Principal in Groner & Associates, a consulting firm that supports financial services companies in the areas of agent, agency and management development, and compliance and market conduct. He can be reached at GronerAssociates@aol.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 23, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.