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Dark sides of learning on the work floor
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Scope leren op de werkvloer
Human Resources

Dark sides of learning on the work floor

Lifelong learning is important, but we encounter obstacles or dark sides here, such as high work pressure and stress when pursuing new knowledge and skills. Training often comes 'on top of' and can exacerbate this stress and sometimes lead to stagnation, causing us to no longer stay current.
by Kirsten Vanderplanken, PhD, Peggy De Prins, PhD | April 14, 2023
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Scope leren op de werkvloer

Dark sides of learning on the work floor

In the realm of Human Resources, we often hear the call for lifelong learning. It's a concept we all value, yet at the same time, we all grapple with its dark sides. High work pressure and other concerns can hinder us from acquiring new knowledge and skills. Training programs are frequently seen as additional burdens, leading to more stress than satisfaction. Sometimes, this can even lead to a state of stagnation, where we find ourselves in a downward spiral, no longer staying up-to-date.

Getting Stuck in the Job

The term 'obsolescence' refers to the challenges of aging, which may result from an inability to adapt to changes. Physical aging can play a role, but more importantly, it involves the obsolescence of certain behaviors, attitudes, or skills (Thijssen & Walter, 2006). Obsolescence is often clichély associated with older employees.

However, our research reveals that it's not necessarily age but rather job tenure that impacts obsolescence (De Vos & Desmet, 2020). It seems that spending too long in the same job increases the risk of getting stuck. We know that the desire to try new things decreases as we gain more experience. The longer we remain in the field, the more resistant we become to acquiring entirely new skills.

"We find ourselves on a 'narrowing route' or suffering from the VIP syndrome, which stands for 'premature inner retirement.'"

So, having more experience does not necessarily equate to having more enthusiasm for learning. For educators or trainers in a traditional training context, motivating experienced employees can be quite challenging.

Fixed Mindset

It's not just job tenure; an individual's mindset also plays a role in determining the risk of obsolescence (De Vos & Desmet, 2020). You may know colleagues who thrive on growth and learning in their jobs, finding motivation in challenges, no matter how new or how many opportunities for growth they offer. These individuals possess a growth mindset (Dweck, 2016).

On the other hand, some colleagues primarily aim to excel in their job, seeking to do it perfectly without errors. It turns out that the second category, those with a fixed mindset, are more susceptible to obsolescence. When performance-driven individuals start struggling to consistently meet high standards, feelings of falling behind, failure, and finiteness can quickly creep in.

It's crucial not to lose these individuals. To maintain the connection and explore ways to catch up. To boost self-confidence ("working on people's self-image, as they may not put in effort due to a lack of self-belief"). To find the right rhythm. To utilize team or peer learning either preventively or correctively.

"I've never met anyone who's tired of learning, only tired of school... we can learn by taking small steps, by bringing people together. You can be more vulnerable with a colleague, making learning easier."

At the organizational level, promoting a culture of learning and innovation can encourage a 'growth' mindset in a more structured manner. "We have an idea box, and the best idea is implemented, with a €50 gift card reward for the person who proposed it. All ideas are reviewed every month, and everyone is kept informed. This lets us communicate that your idea can be valuable to us. People are motivated by the competitive element."

Baby Steps

Unfortunately, establishing such a culture of learning is not always straightforward. It requires taking small steps forward, the so-called "baby steps." Often, there is no time for dialogue and collective learning: "Time must be given, and that's often the problem because 'we need to move forward.'" Additionally, predicting the growth path of employees is not always easy, nor can it be standardized.

"We must move away from the romantic notion that HR knows what to do and must convince people of it. It's about small steps; it's not a switch to turn on and off; the switch can only be quietly turned."

Management must also be on board and support and ignite the process of change. "There's still much that needs to be addressed; there's a management team with four older white men, great colleagues, but they are stuck in their ways." All of these factors mean that striving for a genuine culture of learning, not only in the textile industry but also in other sectors, is a long and challenging journey. Continually stimulating and inspiring each other, both with its bright and dark sides, remains necessary in various sectors in the long term.


De Vos, A., & Desmet, S. (2020). The impact of (technological) changes on work, competencies, and employability. Over.Werk: tijdschrift van het Steunpunt WSE.-Leuven, 30(2), 69-75.

Dweck, C. (2016). What having a “growth mindset” actually means. Harvard Business Review, 13(2), 2-5.

Thijssen, J., & Walter, E. (2006). Identifying obsolescence and related factors among elderly employees. In Conference Archives, University Forum for Human Resource Development.

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