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What is social learning and why is it important to our career development?

Voco Team
Image of four colleagues laughing in a work meeting

Human beings learn from each other. From the day we are born we absorb social cues and form social connections in order to make sense of the world. The information we gather helps us to develop our character and we continue to learn through both our actions and interactions throughout our lives. 

We are incredibly suggestable and adaptable with a limitless potential to, as Albert Bandura proposed in his theory of social learning in 1977, ‘observe, model and imitate the attitudes, behaviours and emotional reactions of others’. 

And learning is not a linear process where information becomes ‘locked in’. It is fluid, complex, continuous and inevitable. We learn every day, whether we like it or not, and it is in ‘informal’ learning environments that we learn the most. 

Fitting in

The reasoning behind social learning theory is simple: we all want to fit in. Exactly where and with whom varies between people, but the search for understanding, meaning and belonging is the driving force behind all human behaviour - even the most neurodiverse amongst us. 

Learning is a fundamental and unavoidable human need. And the very best way to share information, create a healthy working culture and to develop the capabilities and motivation of our teams, is to weave social learning opportunities into the everyday fabric of our work.

That’s why many organisations talk about the importance of ‘learning in the flow of work’ - which often focuses on elements like continuous feedback and conversation-based career development programmes. While more formal learning activities like workshops, training courses and even coaching also have a place, finding ways to make learning natural and ‘always on’ can be key to the progress we make.

But there is more nuance to social learning theory than simply observation of, or interaction with, others. Just because we have learnt something, doesn’t mean that we’ll act on this new knowledge to change our own behaviour. Mental state, cognitive and personal bias and motivation will all determine whether or not true learning actually takes place. 

Simply put, we can choose what we learn, even if we are not always consciously aware that a choice is being made. Our employers cannot control this but they can influence it by creating the right environment and opportunities for the transfer of knowledge and learning to take place.

Finding a safe space to learn

Much has been written about psychological safety since it was first identified as the determining factor in organisational culture and performance by Google employees in 2015. When we feel able to share ideas, take risks and make mistakes - all crucial components of the learning process - without fear of recrimination or shame, we will perform at our best. Put simply, true learning can only take place in a workplace that values and fosters the feeling of psychological safety. 

Generally speaking, we feel most comfortable with those who have no authority or influence over our career, reputation or position within an organisation. Those who are not a threat to our status: our peers. 

The power of our peers

Peer-led interactions are the most effective way to create a culture of continuous, social learning because it is our relationships with, and in relation to, our peers that most influences and motivates our behaviour. As adults, it is in our peers that we seek the guidance we need to learn more than we can alone. 

Our desire to belong and to learn from those we feel an affinity to comes naturally. We are more likely to retain information we receive from our peers because we have no fear that we will be tested or judged on our ability to recall or act on these conversations. 

Peer-led learning is a mutual exchange where we learn not just by observation or instruction, but from sharing ideas and solving problems together. This is true social learning and, when it works well, it has a positive effect on the culture of a team and organisation, as well as bolstering the knowledge, skills and motivation of everyone involved.

So what can we do to embrace social learning and make it work for our own development?

Create time and space - Perceived lack of time is the single biggest barrier to learning, so genuinely and purposefully creating space to connect with others helps us appreciate the value of these interactions and to make more time for them. Social learning is not reliant on in-person interactions but it does require us to lift our heads up from our individual work and allow for regular conversations and collaboration with others.

Learn together - Embracing more structured connections that complement the relationships they already have at work, can strengthen those relationships, build greater trust and provide us with a safe space to share our concerns, ideas and experiences. As author and leadership expert Nancy Kline puts it, we all need ‘time to think’ and we come up with our best ideas when we have the opportunity for these to be heard by the people who just ‘get it’.

Get good at giving and receiving feedback - We cannot learn without feedback but when it’s delivered ‘top-down’, it can be demotivating and leave us feeling disempowered - even when it’s positive. But creating a holistic feedback culture is the foundation that effective social learning can be built on. Both hearing feedback from a colleague or peer, and feeling empowered to deliver feedback to the people who really have an impact on your work, is often far more useful than receiving feedback from a manager. 

Welcome failure - In the spirit of psychological safety, it is important to learn from our mistakes without pressure or judgement. We cannot truly learn unless we are allowed to experiment with new behaviours, skills and ideas. And teams that are allowed to fail are braver, more dynamic and more creative. Having the added accountability to our peers, rather than only our managers, allows the transfer of learning to take place in a supportive and low pressure environment. 

Reflect together - Self-reflection is a crucial part of any learning process and reflecting together is critical to the social learning process. When we only reflect on ourselves, we lose sight of the bigger picture. We may not even be aware of the impact our work or behaviour has had on others. We may be overly critical or falsely positive - either way, no change can occur if we don’t allow ourselves to listen to the thoughts and point of view of others.

Join Voco now to start harnessing the power of peers and creating your own social learning culture to fuel your career development.

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