Is social learning a way to increase employee engagement?

Effective workplaces are comprised of employees who are challenged by their job and offered various learning opportunities, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Effective Workplace Index. 

Yet, employee engagement has been as much of a priority as it has been a top challenge for HR leaders. And the challenge is only compounded further with rising managerial pressures to accomplish more at a faster rate, teams not working collaboratively, and a lack of advancement opportunities. Studies conducted by Gallup, LinkedIn, and SHRM echo these conclusions. 

Social learning, or the learning that is done by observing and imitating others, may be one solution to combat the employee engagement problem when applied to a strategic and ongoing employee learning and development initiative. 

First, let’s understand why engaged employees are a vital part of an effective workplace.

Why employee engagement matters.   

“Serving as a reciprocal relationship between the employee and the employer, engagement has the aptitude to elevate performance and strengthen the link among these relationships,” a 2017 SHRM employee job satisfaction and engagement report found.  

In LinkedIn's 2018 Workplace Learning Report, a top trend in helping improve employee engagement is having direct managers spearhead employee learning opportunities.

Over 50 percent of the 2,200 employees surveyed told the social network they would improve their skills and spend more time learning if their direct manager guided them. 

A now somewhat outdated study by LinkedIn on why and how people change jobs still offers a compelling statistic: 45 percent of employees in 2015 changed jobs because they were concerned about the lack of opportunities for advancement. 

Employee disengagement is costly.   

Unproductive employees cost an average of $3,400 for every $10,000 of their salary, according to research conducted by Gallup. 

And on average 17.2 percent of an organization’s workforce is disengaged, Gallup research suggests. 

Say then, for example, your organization has 1,000 employees and 17.2 percent of them are disengaged. The median salary at your organization is $50,000 per year. 

The 172 disengaged employees are costing the organization $8.6 million a year. 

Employee engagement is linked to revenue growth. 

When employee engagement increases by five points, revenue growth sees a three-point bump the following year, a study of more than five million employee responses from more than 60 countries found. 

The same study, led by Aon Hewitt, examined trends in global employee engagement last year, concluded a drop in employee engagement has a damaging domino effect: 

  • Employee performance decays and absenteeism increases
  • Business experiences greater turnover 
  • Customer satisfaction declines  
  • Financial performance suffers 

Employee engagement is a key metric in determining the connection between HR and the bottom-line.

With the push on organizations to become data-driven, the HR function has struggled behind other business units like sales, marketing, and customer success to use data points to show their contribution to the bottom-line. 

“For most of my career thus far, pulling data was a manual and disparate process,” says Jeffrey Belanger, Lead HR Business Partner and Head of Organizational Performance at Pandora. “Sure, we could pull data on recruiting and hiring. We could calculate retention and churn. The few metrics we were able to get, didn’t help the business in the long-term. It was immediate and reactionary.” 

Employee engagement feedback, collected regularly and consistently through surveys, is an efficient and affordable way to keep up to date on the state of employee engagement and happiness. When these insights are put to use, employee engagement feedback can help better the overall business. 

The metric derived from the employee engagement feedback is a clear-cut, data-supported way that displays HR’s business contributions and helps determine priorities and discover gaps. 

Having a consistent pulse on employee engagement is one step in the right direction. The ways in which organizations respond to low engagement rates, however, determines the value of these insights -- which is an often overlooked or deprioritized next step. 

Knowing whether employees are either engaged or not is only helpful if something is done to retain engagement or improve it.   


Related: What Are People Analytics? 


Without engaged employees, productivity and retention are in jeopardy. 

Similar to engagement, employee retention is a consistently tough challenge for HR leaders year over year. And unfortunately, retention is directly related to engagement -- so if engagement is low, retention, too, will become comprised.  

It’s long been proven that when employees are unsatisfied and unfulfilled with their work, they are more likely to leave, potentially bringing other unsatisfied colleagues with them.  

During their time at the organization, while they’re feeling disengaged, these employees are more prone to slacking off and doing the bare minimum; a highly unhealthy behavior for a team dynamic. 

Employee disengagement is contagious. 

“When employees don’t care about their work and don’t feel connected to the company in some way or another, the entire team is going to suffer,” says Catherine Jessen of The Muse.  

Especially in small teams, when one or two team members are not engaged, the vibe they give off can be toxic to other team members. If left to their own devices, disengaged employees are more likely to influence the behavior and attitudes of engaged employees -- infiltrating disengagement further. 


Related: How to Measure & Improve Company Culture 


What is Social Learning?

Social learning is cognitive learning theory that suggests people learn from each other by watching them, imitating them, and modeling them.   

“Most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and later on occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action.” - Albert Bandura 

The theory was first introduced by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1960s after conducting a behavioral experiment to see how young children aged between 3-6-years-old learn through observation and imitation.  

What came to be known as the “Bobo doll experiments” Bandura created three experimental conditions using a toy doll as his independent variable. 

Role models (adults) were broken into three segments. Three groups of 24 children each were then shown individual experimental conditions between the adult role model and the toy doll:

  • The role model behaved aggressively toward the doll.
  • The role model behaved non-aggressively toward the doll. 
  • No role model or doll was used in the final segment to set a control group.  

The children were observed as they were given aggressive toys (i.e. mallet, pegboard, dart gun) and non-aggressive toys (tea set, crayons, plastic toy figurines). 

The results confirmed Bandura’s hypothesis: the children exposed to aggressive behavior by the role model, imitated the behavior they observed. 

The findings then concluded that children learn social behaviors such as aggression by watching others first, namely a role model such as a parent or older sibling, behave aggressively. 

How to Use Social Learning in an Employee Engagement Strategy 

While employee engagement has been a constant challenge, perhaps a change in how it is approached could be a variable to toy around with. 

Integrating different engagement tactics, such as social learning, may not only help improve engagement but may help shape the company’s holistic employee experience.  

And for many organizations, the experience offered to employees is as much of a priority this year as employee engagement is. 

Employee experience, when framed as a company differentiator, can be a great way to attract top talent as well as a way to sustain a high level of employee satisfaction and engagement. 

Rich employee experiences evoke employees to feel:  

  • Challenged
  • Valued
  • Appreciated 
  • Growth-minded 

And when employees have these opportunities granted to them in the workplace, SHRM research suggests they will be more productive, motivated, and engaged. 

The social learning aspect of an engagement strategy can be integrated as it makes sense to your particular business and the experience you’re seeking to shape. 

However, the foundational elements of social learning behaviors developed via observation should steer the strategy’s direction. 

Here are four ideas on how to leverage social learning to improve employee engagement:

  1. Social learning workshops. Set up regular workshops specific to different skill areas that invite employees from different departments or business functions to come together and learn something new from each other -- marketing learns from engineering, for example.

    Department A demonstrates an aspect of their role. Department B observes.  Department B is then asked to demonstrate or test what they've just observed from Department A to determine their comprehension.

    Set an average number of social learning workshops an employee should participate in quarterly or annually and include it in their annual performance review so they are incentivized to attend, and they learn new skills and build relationships with more colleagues. Bonus points for the employees who demonstrate how they've incorporated the skills shown in these workshops into their regular work. 

  2. Position managers as role models. Social learning was founded on the belief that behavior is imitated from a role model. Managers should be consistent with the behavior they’re looking to promote to their employees. When these behaviors are evident to the employee, they should be praised or recognized in some way.  

  3. Set a managerial behavior standard. To avoid unsavory behaviors from managers being promoted and imitated by employees and clearly define what a model behavior is, HR should standardize organizationally acceptable behavior with leadership. These standards should then be communicated at managerial meetings so expectations are set. Deviation from the agreed on behaviors should be accounted for as well. 

  4. Ongoing employee training. Training is a great way to integrate social learning elements throughout the employee experience from new employee training to ongoing training sessions. Social learning encourages training leaders to use role-playing and demonstration, which enliven training and increases its effectiveness, while clearly outlining what is expected from employees. It’s a more interactive way to train employees versus handing them a handbook on day one or asking them to watch an outdated and canned video alone at their workstation. 

The changing workforce challenges traditional strategic frameworks.  

Effective workplaces share seven main traits or components, according to SHRM’s Effective Workplace Index: 

  • Job Challenge and Learning Opportunities 
  • Supervisor Support for Job Success
  • Autonomy 
  • Culture of Respect, Trust, and Belonging 
  • Work-Life Fit 
  • Satisfaction with Wages, Benefits, and Opportunities to Advance 
  • Co-worker Support for Job Success 

Thanks to the work of SHRM and others that conduct original HR research, it’s clear the time is now for businesses to get creative and leverage new ways of fostering a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship with its employees. 

In short, employees aren’t just seeking employment for a competitive salary or health benefits these days. The incoming workforce has not only changed the way businesses communicate, leverage social media, and define where and when to work, but what it means to be a desirable employer. 

For companies who are proactive, forward-thinking, and experience-driven, giving tactics like social learning a try is what success is going to require more and more. 

Put simply, to be an effective workplace today calls for companies of all sizes across industries to think outside the box about ways to break the transactional connection between employee and employer. Social learning is one example of how to apply different tactics in new contexts.