Creating incentives for completing training has always been an important focus of learning and development (L&D) professionals. However, course completion alone is not still a good measure of success. What’s even more critical is for training to achieve desired business outcomes. For example, employees should retain what was learned and apply it to the job. 

You have many options when it comes to incentives for training. These range from rewards to penalties. Some are like a carrot on a stick, while others are more like the stick. To help you decide what’s best for your training program, here’s a list of five top motivators that get the job done (aiding both completion and outcomes) — and why they work.

1. Create a Healthy Competition

Like it or not, competition motivates course completion and improves learning. In a study by James Banfield and Brand Wilkerson, competing in study-based games made learners almost 20 times as likely to organize new knowledge and relate it to existing knowledge, compared to those who took a traditional lecture-based course.

If the timing is right, stress hormones have been shown to enhance memory by improving focus, said a report in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. Simply the stress of knowing that quiz results will be viewable to others triggers the release of stress hormones within moments of learners’ exposure to the material they should remember. “If the stress is related to impending judgment, then a desire to avoid humiliation could conceivably contribute to greater attention to the learning task,” the researchers concluded.

Gamification elements, such as badges and leaderboards, make effective and inexpensive ways to reward and motivate learners. When employees reach a particular course level or complete training, they can unlock a badge to show on their online profile or brag about the accomplishment. If such electronic icons aren’t available, wearing pins, adding stickers to employee ID badges, or publicly displaying individual/team standings can foster a competitive spirit.

Research into operant conditioning has shown that such badges may even be more effective at reinforcing learning when they appear at unpredictable, irregular intervals during the training. This element of surprise makes the accomplishments more enjoyable, and the simultaneous release of brain chemicals like dopamine at the moment of learning serves to reinforce that knowledge.

2. Encourage Industry Certifications

One training motivator that’s both intrinsic and tangible is earning a respected certification by a third-party organization. Being able to add credentials — like Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), Microsoft Certified Azure Developer Associate (AZ:203), Project Management Professional (PMP), Certified ScrumMaster (CSM), Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) or Certified Salesforce Administrator (CSA) — to a business card or resume provides the holder with pride and a valuable career advantage they can keep.

Such certifications are also valuable for companies who employ such professionals. In some cases, such certifications are mandated by industry regulations or federal law. Having certified employees also provides competitive differentiator. Certified employees may even offer an opportunity for increased revenue from justifiably higher consultant rate billings.

Certifications motivate learning because they provide a distinct, quantifiable, and attainable goal. They also improve learning by requiring passing an exam. Exams and quizzes are even more instrumental in reinforcing the learning than elaborately studying the material itself.

One of the best ways to improve knowledge retention is to demonstrate its importance by clarifying the connection between the training and an employee's actual job. As Dr. Will Thalheimer explains, “When we persuade learners about the importance of what they are learning, they will be more likely to reinforce memory accessibility and persevere during future on-the-job implementation attempts.” Few things say “relevant to your job” like an industry-standard certification in a specific technology that an employee uses every day.

3. Provide Reimbursement, Not Prepayment

This may be the most surprising and controversial learning incentive because it suggests that it may be better not to pay for training or certification upfront — but to reimburse employees instead. 

Holding employees accountable for training is one of the most critical factors for improving completion rates. Manager support and monitoring of the training process is one essential part of enforcing this accountability. An integrated learning management system (LMS) provides dashboard tools that make it much easier to track success and keep learners on the right path. However, few things can enforce learners’ accountability better than an automatic financial disincentive if they fail to finish the course.

Some companies use financial incentives (such as bonuses) as a way to motivate training completion. But do such rewards improve learning? Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business found that completion rates were better when the incentive was provided as a reimbursement of training costs, rather than a reward for completing the training. The study’s co-author, Teck-Hua Ho, said: “A one-time, outcome-based financial incentive — when leveraged on proven psychological techniques — can effectively induce workers’ long-term commitments to training.”

In this Berkeley study, employees were asked a non-binding commitment to take training courses. Those who committed to additional training and were offered the incentive in the form of reimbursement were six times more likely to follow through and continue training than those who were offered cash as a reward for completing the training. 

When people are tangibly connected to the outcome, such as by committing financially to the training ahead of time, they are more motivated (driven by the psychology of loss aversion) than when they are tempted by an only prospective reward. 

In employee performance reviews, training opportunities are often offered as rewards or incentives. “If people want to get appraised well and get a raise or promotion, the time that they spend on learning will be recognized,” says Krishna Kumar, Founder, and CEO of Simplilearn.

It’s essential to frame training opportunities as rewards rather than having them denied (or demanded) in response to poor performance. Penalties often build resentment and stifle creative risk-taking. Instead, Karen Frankola recommends, “Tell employees it will be looked upon favorably in their evaluation, rather than threatening punishment.”

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Build a Commitment to Learning

There are countless incentives for training that can motivate employees to improve their skills. Such incentives should be chosen and administered to foster a culture of learning, rather than using them as a one-off boost in completion rates for a particular course. 

Whether you choose to focus on completion rates or not, what’s more, important is for the training to be aligned to your business goals. Is course completion essential, such as to satisfy compulsory certifications, or is course completion even necessary at all? If an employee takes a course but doesn’t finish it — yet learns one critical thing that can be applied to improve the job every day — then that is an even better measure of success.

Learn more about how outcome-oriented online training courses from Simplilearn can help your organization accomplish your goals and achieve even greater success in the digital economy.

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