top of page
  • Writer's pictureIvan Palomino

Acquiring New Skills: The Psychology Perspective on Learning at Work

skills acquisition at work

Acquiring and honing new skills is now a necessity rather than a luxury in the fast-changing work environment of today. This article explores the psychological underpinnings of adult learning, drawing on established learning theories to provide a framework for successful skill development.

The Need for Continuous Learning

Operant conditioning, a cornerstone of behavioral psychology, highlights the importance of reinforcement in shaping behavior.  In the context of skill acquisition, positive reinforcement – such as recognition, promotion, or increased job satisfaction – motivates individuals to invest time and effort in learning new skills.  Social Learning Theory, championed by Albert Bandura, further emphasizes the role of observational learning  – witnessing others successfully navigate the learning process – in fostering confidence and encouraging skill acquisition.

Strategies for Effective Adult Learning

  • Self-Assessment and Goal Setting:  Self-efficacy, a core concept in Bandura's theory, refers to an individual's belief in their ability to master a particular skill. A crucial first step is conducting a realistic self-assessment of your current skillset and limitations (Weintraub). Setting Goals fosters a sense of control and motivates sustained effort.

  • Learning Style Preferences:  Building on David Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory, Halvorson emphasizes the importance of identifying your preferred learning style.  Are you a visual learner who thrives with diagrams and charts?  An auditory learner who benefits from lectures and discussions?  Or a kinesthetic learner who needs hands-on experience to solidify knowledge?  Tailoring your learning approach to your preferred style optimizes knowledge retention and skill development.

  • Mentorship and Social Learning:  Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory posits that learning is a fundamentally social process.  Seeking mentorship from experienced individuals provides guided practice and valuable feedback (Weintraub).   Expanding your network beyond your immediate supervisor allows you to tap into diverse perspectives and enhance your learning experience.

  • Deliberate Practice and Reflection:  Anders Ericsson's concept of deliberate practice – focused effort on improving specific aspects of a skill – is essential for mastery. This requires regular reflection on your progress, identifying areas for improvement, and adapting your learning strategies accordingly (Halvorson).

  • Knowledge Sharing and Feedback:  Piaget's theory of cognitive development emphasizes the importance of active learning through exploration and interaction.  Teaching the skill you're learning to others not only reinforces your own knowledge but also provides valuable feedback opportunities (Weintraub).

“The single biggest driver of business impact is the strength of an organization’s learning culture.” — Josh Bersin

Your Task List for Acquiring New Skills

In her book "Nine Things Successful People Do Differently" Heidi Grant Halvorson provides actionable strategies and insights that can significantly influence how people approach learning and personal development.

1. Get Specific

Successful people set specific, concrete goals. When it comes to learning, this means clearly defining what you want to learn and setting precise milestones. For example, instead of aiming to "get better at math," a specific goal would be "master algebraic equations by the end of the semester."

2. Seize the Moment to Act on Your Goals

Proactively identifying when and where you will engage in learning activities increases the likelihood of following through. This involves planning and scheduling dedicated time for learning, which helps in creating a consistent routine.

3. Know Exactly How Far You Have Left to Go

Monitoring progress is essential for effective learning. Regularly assessing how much you've learned and identifying areas that need improvement keeps you on track and motivated. This can involve self-assessment, feedback from others, and tracking your achievements.

4. Be a Realistic Optimist

Having a positive outlook while also being realistic about the challenges ahead helps maintain motivation and persistence. Believing in your ability to learn while acknowledging that it may require significant effort encourages resilience and sustained effort.

5. Focus on Getting Better, Rather Than Being Good

Adopting a growth mindset, which emphasizes learning and improvement over proving one's ability, is crucial. This approach encourages continuous learning and development, seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth rather than failures.

6. Have Grit

Grit, or perseverance and passion for long-term goals, is vital for learning. Staying committed to your learning goals, even when faced with difficulties, ensures ongoing progress and eventual mastery.

7. Build Your Willpower Muscle

Self-control and willpower are essential for maintaining focus on learning objectives. Strengthening willpower through practice, such as setting small, manageable goals and gradually increasing challenges, helps in sustaining learning efforts.

8. Don't Tempt Fate

Avoiding situations that might lead to distractions or temptations helps in maintaining focus on learning activities. Creating an environment conducive to learning, free from distractions, supports better concentration and productivity.

9. Focus on What You Will Do, Not What You Won’t Do

Positive framing of goals and actions is more effective than negative framing. Instead of focusing on avoiding distractions ("I won’t watch TV"), successful people focus on productive actions ("I will study for one hour after dinner"). This positive approach promotes a proactive mindset towards learning.

Learning is a Journey

Learning new skills is a continuous journey, not a final destination. By grasping the psychological principles of adult learning and implementing proven strategies, individuals can effectively progress on this journey of acquiring new skills. It is important to keep in mind that patience and a dedication to constant improvement are crucial for achieving long-lasting success. Being able to adapt and learn will provide you with the necessary skills to navigate the constantly evolving professional environment and reach your career goals.


This guidebook explores the science behind adult learning, how behavioral science can be used to improve learning in corporates and the role of technology in supporting training employees in the workplace.


bottom of page