If you have heard the phrase “social learning theory” recently and wondered what it meant, you may be surprised to learn that it’s a straightforward concept at its core. Social learning theory is simply the idea that people learn how to do things by watching other people.

This basic psychology term was introduced to the world by Albert Bandura, who identified that people seem to learn best when they mimic the actions of role models. Although the concept is simple, the applications of this theory are vast, especially in the workplace.

Social Learning Theory

Digging Deeper into Social Learning Theory

The social learning theory presented by Bandura included three main concepts:

Understanding these three parts of the theory is important for developing the office culture you want. The first part is simple to accept: that people learn by watching.

The second part, about a person’s mindset, takes a little deeper diving. It means that it is essential to create a workspace that is conducive to learning. Make sure the office isn’t a chaotic place. Offer a quiet area to allow trainees to observe more experienced employees at work.

Another critical mindset shift that you can encourage is a feeling of motivation. Do you make it worthwhile for employees to learn and implement new behaviors? This may mean offering financial incentives, but not always. Be creative with motivation to encourage your employees to want to learn new skills.

The final part reveals something important about the theory: that it isn’t a magic bullet. Social learning theory is a great tool to help you craft the workplace culture you want, but it doesn’t always lead to changes.

Creating a Culture of Role Models

The first way to integrate social learning theory into your office is to encourage a culture of role models. Starting a mentorship program is a great way to take advantage of the natural inclination to learn by observing others.

One HR study found that over half of new hires found it easier to work at top performance when paired with a more experienced employee. Mentoring programs can not only provide a simple way to allow people to learn by observing; they can also allow you to monitor performance more readily by asking mentors to provide simple assessments of their mentees on a regular basis.

Another way to encourage role models in your workplace is to teach the management-level staff what makes a good role model. Cultivating trust and a positive attitude are two very important things, but also consider qualities such as:

These are some traits that a good role model can develop to encourage others to observe and learn from them.

Environment and State of Mind

One of the key differences between social learning theory, and other learning theories, is the environmental factor. During the experiments that led Bandura to this conclusion, he noted that children who grew up in aggressive households tended to be more aggressive themselves. Part of that was simply observation, but part of that was the high-stress environment that influenced the child’s state of mind.

Some ways to create an environment conducive to learning include:

It is also essential that employees feel confident and optimistic when they are in the observational learning mode. When giving feedback and presenting training opportunities, do so in a way that boosts these feelings.

What to Do When Social Learning Theory Doesn’t Work

The final important part of this theory is acknowledging that even when something is learned, it doesn’t mean behavior will change. In Bandura’s experiments, attempting to model calm, responsible behavior to the children from aggressive households didn’t always lead to avoiding trouble with the law, for example. But in your office, you can do something to give social learning theory the best chance of success.

Setting up consequences for not implementing the learned behaviors is the best way to ensure that your experiment will succeed. Monitor your employees while you are implementing these practices. If you notice a consistent refusal to change, there should be a direct result even after training. Lean into the “social” aspect of this theory and emphasize to employees how vital it is to the entire team that training is implemented.

You may also ask if social learning theory can work in a virtual or hybrid office. Consider that mentoring programs can take place over Zoom just as easily as in an office space. Observing others working is getting even more accessible with advances in streaming apps and screen-sharing capabilities. Providing these opportunities in a virtual office can also help boost feelings of connectivity within the team.

Why Social Learning Theory is Important

The most important reason to bring this theory to the workplace is that it focuses on the employees themselves. It draws on one of the most simple, primal behaviors of the human brain – observing others. As social creatures, this very basic concept goes a very long way. Use this psychological principle to create an office culture that encourages growth, and you could see a radical shift in your employee performance.