How Social Learning Helps You Focus on Your People

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People have studied learning for centuries — only to discover that there is no perfect way to learn. As a business, accepting this can be difficult, especially if we have large amounts of learning that must be taught to large amounts of people. We find ourselves torn between different learning methods, where everyone has a different opinion and determining value can be a long and frustrating process.

The good news? There is one shared learning principle that we can count on to work every time. That’s the human-centered approach. This means focusing learning on bringing value to people. Let’s take a quick look at the learning theories behind the most common forms of workplace learning and see how this matches up.

  • Traditional learning (ILT) embraces more a behaviorist approach. This means that learning happens due to interaction with the environment. The focus stays on the observable changes in behavior due to the environment. This emphasises environment first, people second.
  • eLearning often embraces a more cognitive approach. First suggested by Jean Piaget, the cognitive approach suggests that most learning happens due to the power of the learner’s own mind. The focus stays on the learner’s inner reasoning. This focuses primarily on the individual.

However, there’s a third option. One that takes the best of behaviorist approach and the cognitive approach and builds a bridge between the two. This is social learning theory. Let’s take a look at how social learning theory works and how we can apply it to the workplace for the best possible results.

What is social learning theory?

Social learning theory states that true learning power comes from watching and imitating the actions and behaviors of others.

Albert Bandura, who originated the concept of social learning in 1973, believed in the ability of people to watch others and determine behaviors and the related consequences. This gives the learner the responsibility to decide on their response to presented information — a stance that matches well with most adult learning.

Already, you can see the bridge between environment-focused (behaviorism) and learner-focused (cognitive). This balance of autonomy with environment makes social learning theory unique.

How does social learning work?

Social learning states that people (notably children) learn from watching others. Bandura firmly believed in the ability of the human mind to actively process information and closely consider the relationships between behavior and consequences. Because of this, people naturally copy patterns that bring positive reinforcement and reject patterns that bring negative reinforcement.

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4 principles of social learning

Bandura based social learning on a set of four principles. These principles form a pattern or path that most people follow throughout the learning process.


In order to imitate an action, it has to grab our attention. We see a lot of things, and our minds will delete everything that doesn’t matter. Gamification, mixed media, and interactions are all efforts to grab a learner’s attention and keep it.


When attention is successfully grabbed, these observations are then stored within memory. After this happens, the attention-grabbing memory can be recalled whenever necessary. The memory may also be triggered if the learner has a similar experience.


Once an attention-grabbing observation is recalled or triggered, the learner must choose whether or not to reproduce it. If the consequences appear to be negative, the learner will probably avoid reproducing it. If the consequences are seen as positive, the learner will most likely try to make that cool thing happen again.

However, it’s important to note that reproduction is limited by ability. A person with a broken leg can’t go free climbing, no matter how positively they viewed their friend’s experience.


Both negative and positive rewards can inspire the learner to either avoid or reproduce a specific action. This is just a fancy, scientific way to say that people like things that benefit them and generally avoid things that don’t benefit them. Every human wants to know, “What’s in it for me?” (Also known as the WIIFM.)

Motivation comes from rewards or benefits as well as competition and personal pride. Everyone wants to win and look good while doing so. You can probably already tell how this applies to business. People have a solid sense of WIIFM, so they:

  • Work better when motivated
  • Waste less time
  • Create quality work
  • Are happier and more positive

How Social Learning Theory can be applied in the workplace

Social learning is difficult for many companies to adjust to because it doesn’t have strict stats or metrics recommending it — it can’t be measured, datafied or enforced. Instead, it’s a cultural element. Making it succeed involves a deep look into company culture, employee treatment, and company values.

When applied to the workplace, social learning steps away from the corporate machine and reintroduces the human element. This theory places trust in the individual — the employee — and gives them responsibility for their own knowledge and actions. Sometimes, the WIIFM really just means trust. Because often, all employees want is to be trusted and acknowledged. It’s startling how powerful trust in action really is.

While this level of trust might sound intimidating, think of The Ritz-Carlton, one of the most successful brands of luxury hotels and resorts in the world. They live and breathe employee empowerment, giving all levels of employees (dishwashers and concierge alike) the ability to spend $2000 per guest, per incident in order to achieve guest satisfaction. And even though the employees have this power, it’s only used when absolutely necessary. Because once given trust, most people don’t want to break it.

Social learning builds on a foundation of trust, collaboration, and openness. And the key to achieving this? Good leadership and good learning.

Good leadership develops good employees

Social learning is all about observation and making choices based on those observations. And in workplaces, leadership gets observed more than anyone else. Leadership sets a precedent for workplace values, character, and work ethic. A leader’s actions (good or bad) will be observed, retained, and reproduced, affecting motivation for better or for worse.

If you want your employees to demonstrate service, kindness, and trustworthy character, your leadership needs to lead the way. Never expect anything from your employees that you don’t expect in double from your leaders.

Good workplace learning inspires confidence

Though at first glance they may seem like opposite, eLearning and workplace social learning actually go hand in hand. While time constraints with ILT can often lead to large information dumps, eLearning’s measured and bite-sized pacing gives people the chance to absorb, recall, and apply the learning over a period of time.

  • Attention: eLearning teaches through observation using a combination of videos, images, voiceover, and text. Animations and great visual elements also work to grab and hold learner attention.
  • Retention: eLearning can use a choose-your-own-adventure format, storytelling, gamification, and shorter seat time to encourage retention.
  • Reproduction: eLearning creates a positive impact using a visually pleasing interface, great user experience, and personable copy. Also, interactions, learning checks, and practicals hone learners’ abilities to apply the learning in the real world.
  • Motivation: eLearning can find and directly discuss the WIIFM aspect of learning. With good learning management, eLearning can be turned into a friendly competition where recognition can be gained and personal growth encouraged.

Social Learning Theory brings people back into learning

Driving learning results is more than important — it’s critical. But sometimes we get so caught up with numbers and data that we forget that people are, well, people. Humans aren’t machines and our ability to process information isn’t infinite.

Social learning theory reminds us that people learn best when given motivation, trust, and responsibility. And eLearning gives you the tools your business needs to succeed — at a pace that works well for both you and your people.

Grow your business and inspire your people with learning.

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