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Management: Working with Slow Learners
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Management: Working with Slow Learners - Executive Leadership Articles

Management: Working with Slow Learners

Executive Leadership Articles

Management: Working with Slow Learners

The world is an unfriendly place to people who learn slowly; the office doubly so. In the get-stuff-done hustle and bustle of the workplace, where survival often goes to the fittest, it can be easy for a slow learner to be lost in the shuffle, an afterthought despite above-adequate intelligence, insight, and multiple other assets.

To be clear, slow learning does not mean incompetence, and it is not a trait limited to people with developmental issues. There are many reasons someone not otherwise hindered at work might be a slow learner, nearly all of them manageable with buy-in from you, your team, and your employee.

Slow Processors
Some people simply process information slowly. While on the surface it may seem that fast processors are vastly preferable to slow processors, consider some of your fast processors—you may be one of them, because quite often, fast processors are seen by others as intelligent and insightful. They often see the punchline of the joke before the joke-teller gets to it. They get the gist of new material quickly enough that they rush to put new material into action before stopping to consider nuances or recognize details. In meetings or training sessions, they get bored easily, and sometimes they don’t understand why others don’t keep up, which can lead to frustration for everyone involved.

Slow processing isn’t necessarily a defect or medical condition (although it can be symptomatic) any more than fast processing is a defect. Slow processors merely need more time to learn something.

Attention Issues
Interestingly, attention deficit issues can cause someone to learn quickly or slowly. The quick-learning attention-challenged employee takes everything in at once and understands how it fits together. The slow-learning attention-challenged employee either has difficulty with sustained focus or something called “salience filtering.” He or she also notices everything at once, but has difficulty filtering out irrelevant info, thus spending time considering each bit. If you’re the sort who, when cleaning out your desk, takes a moment to consider each item so that it turns into an all-day job, you know what we’re talking about here. The slow-learning attention-challenged employee is doing the same thing, but with whatever he or she is trying to learn.

Unknown Reasons
By the time slow-learning, qualified employees make it onto your team, they are almost surely aware of their tendencies. They may be able to tell you where the issues originate, and they should give you tips on how to best support their training. Still, some may not have received compassionate schooling about their learning differences, so they may understand they learn slowly but very little else. This is a good opportunity to help your team members learn something about themselves and each other.

Training can be extremely frustrating for the team member trying to teach slow-learning employees, so be judicious in choosing someone to do the training. If an impatient trainer is the only person who can do it, now you have two working styles to deal with: the slow learner and the impatient trainer. You can coach them both! Here are a few ideas to consider.

  • 1. Flexible deadlines. Build flexibility into the team member’s work so that deadlines aren’t necessarily etched in stone.
  • 2. Teach new material in chunks. Break up training objectives into smaller units. Train one unit, then give the employee time to practice it in actual work. When the employee has a decent grasp, train the next unit. This should be standard training procedure for most employees anyway, but it’s not always cost-efficient, so we try to instruct everything at once and then expect our new team members to know how to do it all.
  • 3. Leverage strengths. Find your employee’s strengths and use them in training for new material. This team member may be artistic; another may be a spreadsheet master. Find ways to incorporate skills in the training process.
  • 4. Structure for success. Sometimes slow learners need assurance that they can lean what you’re training them for. Set up tasks—real tasks, not token tasks—for them to work on as they train, in such a way that they will be able to finish them. This reinforces their motivation and drives them to overcome whatever challenges are next.
  • 5. Be patient! If you have good people on your team, don’t let a learning difference get in the way of your hanging on to them. The investment in time and energy can pay off in retention, loyalty, and morale. What’s that worth to you?

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Management: Working with Slow Learners - Executive Leadership Articles

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