4 Reasons They Don’t Want to Learn… and 5 Suggestions

I’ve learned in leadership:

You can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn.

It is true. Perhaps you’ve tried. I’ve been worn out trying to teach principles I know someone needs to learn…everyone can see they need them…but they seem to ignore them. They keep making the same mistakes. They never seem to catch on. They never seem to learn. It doesn’t even seem they want to. Many times it’s because they don’t.

It can be frustrating, but sometimes the person who doesn’t want to learn is me. Sometimes it’s you.

It’s not only in leadership. It’s true with all of life. Some people simply don’t want to learn. They aren’t teachable at the moment.

I’ve discovered that the reasons someone isn’t willing to learn may not always be the same. The reason may not always be what we think it is. In fact, there may be several reasons.

Here are 4 reasons people may not want to learn:

They don’t think they need to learn anything – This is the one that frustrates us the most, and it’s the one we accuse people of the most. It’s true, arrogance is common in leadership, but also among those who need to be led. Many leaders feel they are in a position because they are the only ones who could do the job. Everyone around them may know that’s not true, but they can’t see it. They don’t care to learn from others, because they aren’t willing to admit or see they have anything to learn. Sometimes those who still have much to learn are too proud to admit it.

They don’t know they need to learn anything – It may sound similar, but this is a different reason. It isn’t arrogance than causes this one, but rather ignorance. We’ve all been there at times. Many times I’ve assumed I had the answers already. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in learning more…I just didn’t know there was more to learn. I’ve said before, the older I get the more I realize I don’t know yet. Some of that comes with maturity and age. Some of it comes with experience. But, many times we don’t think we need to know anything new, because we don’t see enough problem with what we already know.

They don’t want to learn from you – This is a hard one for leaders to accept, but it’s actually quite common. It could be a relational issue or a positional issue…it might simply be a personality clash, but for whatever reason, it keeps them from desiring to learn from you. As a parent, there were seasons when my boys learned more from others than they did from me. I welcomed that and was appreciative of those who spoke into their life. This has been true also when someone was supposed to be leading me, but I knew more about a subject. It takes a very humble person to learn from those you’re supposed to be leading. I’ve had times when someone on my team hears the same thing at a conference I’d been saying for months. It sticks coming from someone new. Don’t be offended if they aren’t always listening to you, but make sure they are listening to someone.

They want to learn on their own – There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as they remain teachable. In fact, it should be encouraged at times. Some of the best lessons in life come from trying something and succeeding or failing. If they aren’t being arrogant, give them the freedom to explore independent of you. It will help you, them and the organization.

But, regardless of the reason….

You can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn.

That’s why the best leaders I know…the best teachers…the best parents…

Spend as much time motivating the learner as they do teaching them.

In the book “Switch”, authors Dan and Chip Heath call it “motivating the elephant”. Your job as a leader, if you desire people to want to learn from you, or even from others, is to motivate them to want to learn.

How do you do that?

If you want people to listen to you:

Here are 5 suggestions:

Value the person – No one follows someone willingly who they don’t believe cares for them. Zig Ziglar’s famous line “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is true. Don’t expect people to want to learn from you until they know you have their best interest at stake and that you care for them personally; not simply what they can do for you or the organization.

Paint a great vision – You have to give people something worth following. It needs to stretch them, while still being attainable by risk, faith and hard work. When they know there’s a glimmer of hope to the finish line, they’ll be more willing to learn what it takes to attain it.

Communicate it frequently – Even the best vision fades over time. People get bored. Andy Stanley uses the phrase “vision leaks”. If you want to maintain your audience of followers, you have to keep reminding them why you are doing what you are doing.

Tell compelling stories – People are motivated by example. They want to know that what they are doing makes a difference. People will be more likely to seek your input if they know you are leading them to something of value and importance.

Share in the reward – People only feel valued when they get to celebrate the victory. If all the recognition goes to the leader, the follower feels taken advantage of to some degree. If you want people to keep listening…listen to them…share the credit…celebrate often.

What other ways have you found to get people to want to learn from you?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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19 thoughts on “4 Reasons They Don’t Want to Learn… and 5 Suggestions

  1. I think the biggest problem I have had to face, in myself, is the idea that I need to have an impact on their lives! I honestly wanted to have a big, but positive, impact on their lives. I wanted to do more than just give them something to think about. I had such high hopes of giving them something that would actually change their lives, and in ONE sitting. In essence, I wanted to save the world. When I finally came back to earth; came back to the reality of what teaching and leading was, I was more at peace with what I was doing. I became more apt to see my kids with eyes that had the capacity to see them as learners with needs. People that needed to be able to reach out and make these decisions on their own, because the Holy Spirit was leading, not because I was saying the "magic" words. It was never about the special things I had to say, it was about them hearing what God had to say through me. Not because I was there, but, because I am available to His lead. I just had to get over me, so they could hear me. I hope that makes sense.

  2. I feel your pain Ron. In our youth group there are always a handful of kids that don't want to learn. It's like pulling teeth while hitting your head against a wall. FRUSTRATING!

    You've given some great tactics to try. I'll look into implementing them in our group and see what happens.

  3. Ron,

    I was very pleased with your post today. Your blog is terrific. I wanted to comment on this post because I think you left out one important factor that impedes learning, crowding. I worked in adult ed for 11 years, teaching professional teachers. There's no tougher audience in the world than a bunch of professional educators in a room together trying to learn something… What I discovered over that time is that the "I don't want/choose to learn x (from y)" paradigm is often just a cover for a far deeper issue, one of crowding.

    We can have our learning environment (our brain, the room, our ego) crowded by many things some of which you touched on in your article. However, the biggest crowder of them all is in-authenticity and fear. Fear of being found out by needing to learn or by needing to ask a question to gain understanding. This fear stems form a natural leader's sense of authority in the position s/he holds. Almost all leaders have gotten "lucky" a few times along the way by gambling on a bigger position than they can handle or over-promising something that wasn't theirs to give and then taking the kudos for "facilitating." This leads to leaders who to some degree are disingenuous with themselves on some level.

    The big cover-up of saying or believing that, "nobody can do the job but them" or is the hallmark of a leader who made the grade through some form of subterfuge. In-authenticity with themselves drags leaders down into the hole of fear of being "discovered" and this leads to all sorts of fireworks and mis-directions of attention. Do anything, deal with anything other than looking directly at me and my inadequacy. Don't stare too long, you'll see the scotch tape on my seams. And so forth.

    Authentic leaders who came to leadership through being the right kind of person first rarely have any such hang-ups. They can learn, laugh and even joke about leadership or their own inadequacies because they own it all, deep down. They can own it because they earned it by being the right kind of person and then found the right kind of position to lead in.

    just a thought :-)

    Thanks,

    Joshua

  4. Ron, I was talking to Father about this very thing and asked Him to give me a better understanding… And then I logged on to my facebook page and a link to this article was the first one listed! exCELLent! (Rick Diefenderfer, Author of "Creating Christian Communities")

  5. I think the vision casting is crucial. People don't value learning for learning's sake – they value what they will achieve by that learning. When we show them what that vision is, that's what will captivate them. I've found that the best way to do this is to model it to them – not just that you model what it looks like to love learning, but that you model someone who understands the WHY to learning.

  6. Acknowledge their contributions…no matter how big or small. It doesn't have to be a big hoopla, but everyone appreciates a genuine handshake, or pat on the back, for a 'job well done'….or even just a simple thank you.