Blog Post

3 Lessons on Employee Motivation from My Days as a School Teacher

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article was originally published under Jeff Miller’s column "The Science of Workplace Motivation" on

Twenty-five years ago, I stepped into my first classroom in South Central Los Angeles. The school was known as one of the worst schools in Los Angeles Unified School District at the time, but I was up for the challenge—eager and ready to make a positive impact on my middle school students. Of course, as I soon realized, teaching is not a one-way street. As much as I helped shape the course of my students' lives, they shaped the course of mine.

I taught for nearly eight years in LA, followed by a few years at a community college in Santa Monica and an associate professorship at Cal State. Eventually, I started my own business to help struggling urban schools. But then the financial crisis of 2008 hit, and I was faced with a harsh reality: Schools simply didn't have the funds to hire me anymore.

As an expert in education, I was at a loss. When a friend recommended a job in corporate learning and development, I applied thinking it might just be a temporary break from my "real" career path. But it wasn't long before I realized just how much the classroom had prepared me for the corporate world. My employees’ need for guidance, support, and encouragement was not so different from my middle schoolers. In fact, when it comes to helping people fulfill their potential, there’s a lot the corporate world could learn from the classroom.

Focus on Learning, Not Teaching

When it comes to professional development, people at companies are very similar to students at school. Now, before you take offense, hear me out. Think back to your company’s last training session. Were your employees excited to go? If I had to guess, I'd say they were probably as psyched about management training as you were about algebra homework in seventh grade.

If you want to excite someone about what you're sharing, you need to switch the mentality from "teaching" to "learning." It's a minor word difference, but it has massive implications.

Talent development is about thinking bottom-up, instead of top-down. When I was a teacher, I always tried to find a way to tie the curriculum to my students' lives. If they were interested in music, I would find great musicians to tie into our history class. As a company leader, get to know a little bit about your employees outside of work. Listen to them and figure out what challenges they enjoy, or topics they relish. If you come to them with an opportunity to expand their skillset while exploring their interests, instead of a requirement to attend a mandatory management training, you'll have a much more engaged audience.

Encourage Failing Forward

I believe a lot of our work habits are established in middle school. The most common habit I've observed? Our consistent fear of being wrong.

Think back to your school days: Who raised their hand in class? The student who had the right answer. You didn't want to raise your hand only to be corrected on the spot and then shown up by your neighbor.

Today, employees perpetuate the same behavior. If you ask, "Does that make sense?" and the rest of the team nods, the one or two people who are lost aren't likely to speak up. This fear of being wrong prevents employees from exploring why they didn't have the right answer, and therefore often prevents them from taking risks and stretching themselves.

Company leaders should focus their energy on fostering a culture that sees failure not as a disaster, but as a growth opportunity. By encouraging people to raise their hands, ask questions, share ideas and eventually land on an answer, you'll combat the fear of being wrong and actually encourage more innovation in your company. Employees should know that the goal isn't always success—it's growth.

Ask "How Are You?" and Mean It

When I was a middle school teacher, I gave an important exam every Friday. And every week, I told my students that if I passed them in the hallway and I asked, "How are you?" and they simply said "Fine," I would dock 10 minutes off of their exam time.

Now, these were sixth graders — 10 minutes weren't going to ruin their educational careers, but it was enough to encourage them to open up. If they were having a bad day, I wanted to stop and talk to them for a few minutes to figure out what was happening. Once they realized they were actually being listened to — that someone cared about their answers — they shared things that were both disturbingly and wonderfully impressive. These small hallway conversations built trust on a personal level, which translated to trust in the classroom.

At work, a similar cause-and-effect applies: If a manager asks, "How are you?" the answer shouldn't always be "Things are fine, I have everything under control." Sometimes the answer is, "Actually I'm struggling with this issue. Do you have any advice?" But this level of trust doesn’t always happen organically. It’s important for managers to establish enough trust with an employee that they feel comfortable opening up and asking for help. At the end of the day, encouraging people to do their best work — whether it's in the classroom or the corporation — starts with trust.

Photo: Creative Commons

Related Resources

Want to keep learning? Explore our products, customer stories, and the latest industry insights.

How KAR Global used Content Anytime to drive engagement and development

Customer Story

How KAR Global used Content Anytime to drive engagement and development

Schedule a personalized 1:1

Talk to a Cornerstone expert about how we can help with your organization’s unique people management needs.

© Cornerstone 2024