Emotion – the ultimate L&D game-changer?

Emotions are powerful motivators – they influence our behaviors in ways we don’t even realize, and can have a huge impact on learning. So why are we so reluctant to take advantage of that fact when designing employee training?

Emotions. Arguably, they’re one of the things that make us human, but in the workplace many of us try to act like we don’t really have any. We’re professionals, after all.  But what if, instead of avoiding our emotions at work, we used them to improve our skills and get better at our jobs?

There’s a lot of research that shows how important emotions can be in learning, memory, and motivation. What if there was a way to apply this knowledge when we’re designing training to make it more engaging and effective?

Let’s take a look at what makes emotions such an underrated tool in learning, and how we can start bringing it into the workplace to improve how we train employees.

What we know about emotion and learning

We’re motivated by emotion

A lot of our day-to-day behaviors are motivated by emotion, whether we realize it or not. We take a slightly longer route to work so we don’t have the frustration of sitting in traffic (avoiding negative emotions), or we sit down with our favourite Netflix comfort show after a hard day (seeking positive emotions).

The same can be said of learning. We choose to engage with learning that will help us achieve positive emotions and avoid negative ones. We want to feel confident and successful in our knowledge, and we want to avoid the anxiety or embarrassment of not knowing something we feel that we should1. Without the fear of failing an exam or the excitement of getting better at a hobby, learning isn’t always that motivating.

We remember emotional events

There’s been a lot of research to show that we remember emotional content better and for longer than neutral content. That’s because the amygdala (the part of our brain that processes emotions) interacts with the hippocampus (the part that deals with memory) to make emotional events enter and stay in our memories for longer2.

Think about your very first memory. Maybe it’s the birth of a younger sibling, a time you fell off your bike, or your first family holiday. Whatever that memory is, it probably has strong emotions attached, positive or negative. I’d be surprised if your first memory is eating breakfast on a random Tuesday when you were three years old. Events that make us feel something are usually the ones we pay attention to and remember the most.

Harnessing the power of emotion in learning and development

Given what we know about how emotions affect learning, it’s surprising to me that we don’t harness the power of emotions more, particularly in workplace learning and development.

The go-to method of training staff is sitting them in front of reams of information and getting them to complete a multiple-choice quiz afterwords. Training done. But where’s the emotion in that? How has that engaged staff and helped them to remember what they’ve learned? How is that encouraging them to keep coming back to their training to strengthen their skills?

But if we design employee learning and development with emotion in mind, we can create training that your staff not only remember, but that they come back to time and again. Here are some of the ways traditional training can be enhanced to build the sense of emotion and create more engagement.

Immersive worlds

If you want your staff to feel something while they’re completing their training, you’re going to have to reel them in from the start. That involves creating asense of immersion. I’m not saying you have to get everyone wearing VR headsets to complete their health and safety training (although you could), but it’s got to be a little more engaging than clicking through plain text on a screen.

It could be as simple as making a mobile-friendly platform featuring your organization’s brand colours, or as complex as recreating your workplace setting for your employees to move through virtually in their training. The point here is to get staff interested in the training from the word go and make it easier to elicit emotion on the way.

Virtual avatars

Humans are social creatures by nature. We pay attention to faces over other objects from the moment we’re born3 because we know instinctively how important other people are for our survival.

So ingrained is our sociability, that we even treat virtual avatars socially when given the chance4. If you’ve ever played a video game that involves choosing from dialogue options, and always choose to be polite to the other characters, you’ll know what I mean.

This means we can use virtual avatars in training to create a greater sense of realism and investment. For example, training retail employees in customer service using a virtual customer that can get angry or upset is going to cause a lot more of an emotional response from staff than traditional methods.

Immediate feedback

I don’t care who you are or how old you are – I can guarantee you feel good about hearing a chirpy ‘ding’ and seeing a green tick when you get an answer correct on an online quiz and feel disappointed when you hear a harsh buzzer and see a red cross when you get something wrong. That’s an emotional response.

We can use this when designing training to get more emotion and engagement from learners. By giving this kind of immediate feedback when testing knowledge, we can increase their level of motivation to avoid negative emotions and seek positive ones – you want that green tick feeling and you’ll try harder to get it.

Points and leaderboards

Come into the Attensi offices once a year on the day we all refresh our data protection training, and you’ll see the emotion that using leaderboards elicits. Groups of people huddled around single screens, frustration, elation, joy, sorrow – you’ll witness it all.

As soon as you introduce a competitive edge to performance in staff training, it completely transforms attitudes to engagement. From interns to the CEO, everyone wants to feel the joy of getting more points than everyone else, and avoid the feeling of coming in last. That’s how you use emotion to motivate people to repeat training to the point of absolute mastery.

At the end of the day, whether you’re a manager or a new starter, working in hospitality, manufacturing, or any other sector, we’re all just people. And people respond to emotion. So if you want to train your staff in a way that sticks, it could be time to inject a little more life into your learning and development pathways.

Are you ready to level up your training?

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    1. Linnenbrink-Garcia, L., Patall, E. A., & Pekrun, R. (2016). Adaptive motivation and emotion in education: Research and principles for instructional design. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(2), 228-236.
    2. Tyng CM, Amin HU, Saad MNM and Malik AS (2017) The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory. Front. Psychol. 8:1454. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01454
    3. Frank MC, Vul E, Johnson SP. Development of infants’ attention to faces during the first year. Cognition. 2009 Feb;110(2):160-70. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2008.11.010.
    4. Kyrlitsias C and Michael-Grigoriou D (2022) Social Interaction With Agents and Avatars in Immersive Virtual Environments: A Survey. Front. Virtual Real. 2:786665. doi: 10.3389/frvir.2021.786665