Posted by: Stefan Spiess | November 28, 2010

Supportive and hostile working environments: how workplace learning occurs in them.

by Emmanouilidis Angelos & Cai Manhua


By the end of the 19th century, together with the first steps of psychology as a separate branch of science away from philosophy and sociology the first theories for learning started to appear. For the following decades behaviorism, one of the first and most important theoretical approaches in psychology which has definitely left its mark to the field, was trying to study, understand and explain how people learn. That legacy of the previous century became the base for many theories which are developed even in our days.

At the same time, in Europe the Industrial Revolution had already begun. As we all know the development of technology during that period was radical and as a result not only our scientific knowledge was enriched but also mankind’s quality of life was increased extremely. But probably the most important inheritance of the Industrial Revolution was the fact that it was then when the foundations of modern capitalism had been put. Increase of productivity, efficiency and of course profits were the main aim of all huge companies and investors. Consequently, industry and enterprises called up except for the natural sciences such like physics, chemistry and more, social sciences and mainly psychology to help them in that race of development and profits. Psychology could offer knowledge about things people had never counted and though before in correlation with working procedure. Because of that, psychology found its own place among with the other social sciences. One of the children born from the unification of Economy-Industry and Psychology-Social Sciences was the field of workplace learning which practically and simply examines how people are learning in their working environment. Additionally, from the beginning of 20th century, effective management theories coming from different schools and backgrounds were stated and tested for the first time, such us Taylor’s scientific management theory and Mayo’s theory which focused on the relationship between people.

Supportive and friendly working environment

Together with these, many other theories from different fields have been proposed and tried to explain in the best possible way which are the factors affecting learning in workplaces. These theories are mainly divided in two major categories: Those who focus on individuals (e.g. Ericsson’s deliberate practice theory) and those who are looking one step further and focus on the interaction in working place and the social context. Of course it is usually censurable to set these boarders and separate the action field of a major theory but this split up of the main directions helps to understand better where each theory applies the most, in the individual or in the social aspect of working place.

Where we would like to stray our attention in this essay, is the social dimension of workplace learning. In the beginning we will look through theories which apply in workplace learning and then we are going to examine what is happening if the working environment does not support learning since supportive working places are not always the occasion. Especially in the middle of a financial crisis where companies are trying to be efficient and employers are trying to keep their job in the fear of unemployment, the opportunities for workplace learning are limited anyway. But before examining the hostile environment in work it would be useful to see what could happen in a friendly and supportive working environment.

The authors strongly believe that any kind of working environment is deeply social which automatically means that employers in every workplace have to interact with their colleagues or the organization itself and through that interaction, learning takes place. Even in occasions when the individual develops himself for his profession outside the workplace he is forced by reality to bring that knowledge in the working environment and use it in that context. Acquired knowledge which cannot be used and communicated is useless so, workplace learning seems to be social oriented and in the next paragraphs we will prove all the above by looking at theories which support that point of view.

The first evidence of learning in a supportive working environment comes from the theories which support the role of social influence. Result of a supportive environment could be a quality transactive memory (Wegner 1985) of the organization members and therefore the creation of a productive environment where everyone knows who is better and in which task. It is a fact that every organization and working place is a small community with special characteristics. This means that in a workplace where the members are interacting and knowing better each other both in a personal and in a professional level then, a metacognitive knowledge of the total capacity of the workplace is developed which helps not only the organization but the working quality of the employers.

As we saw, if people actively seek for it, the working environment can become a live community which can be beneficial for everyone who participates. In this frame we can have also communities of practice (Wenger & Lave 1991) when the employers interact informally every day and they share their knowledge, experience and thoughts. That could enhance the metacognition of the group and the transactive memory of it as well.

It is also really useful in workplace learning to have a teacher or someone like mentor. That idea comes close to Rogoff’s theory for guided participation. In many organizations the administration in an official way assigns these teachers who are usually the older population of the place to the newbies in order to help them deal with the issues which might rise the first weeks. In a non-official way and through the relationships between the workmates which can be developed in a supportive working environment, teachers might be next to some other colleagues and informally share their knowledge and their experience with their apprentices promoting the workplace learning.

Moreover, network theories could be also useful to explain how a supportive environment in work promotes learning. As discussed in these theories each person carries his knowledge and as a result his own network in the workplace. That means that every individual in the workplace consists of a bridge between different groups of people and knowledge fields. In a supportive working environment every person is possible to enrich the knowledge of the workplace and especially the newbies can become knowledge breakers (Burt, 1999; Moreland, 1999) and build new social bridges which benefit their workmates and the organization in general. From another perspective, Cross, Rice & Parker discussed the benefits when asking for help from another person promoting in that way the general idea of networks in workplace learning.

Last but not least we have to discuss the necessity and the contribution of the organization for successful and efficient workplace learning. It seems like except for the rest social perspectives of learning in working environments the role of the organization plays a huge part too (Billet, 2001). These theories summon the dual bases model (Billet, 2001) for workplace learning and demand the participation of both the organization and the employers to occur. The idea behind the theory is that the organization has to create opportunities for learning and take actions towards that direction. On the other hand the individual has to take advantage of the existing available opportunities and engage (Billet, 2001) by grasping them. In that occasion we have a combination of the specific characteristics of the individual and the affordance (Billet, 2001) the workplace can offer. We have to underline that in order for this model to work successfully it is important both parts to participate actively and equally.

As we have seen active participation from the employers can promote workplace learning and if the organization helps then learning has the best odds to occur. But life is not so convenient and most of the times neither the organization nor the colleagues and the relationship between the employers are available. What is happening then? That’s what we are going to discuss in the rest of this paper.

Hostile working environment

Though workplace theoretically should provide substantial opportunities for learning to their workers, which is acknowledged throughout the world, and workplace learning has actually drawn increasing attention, it is undeniable that due to various reasons, lack of funds, for example, hostile environments still exists in certain workplaces up to date. According to Gustavo Guzman, hostile work environments are defined as related to both organizational and social contexts. From the organizational perspective, hostile environments results from tight division of labor, task fragmentation and the existence of vertical supervisory hierarchies. From the social perspective, hostile environments mean low inter-personal trust and unwillingness of experts to mentor novices (2008). Clearly, both organizational and social environments of the workplace can vastly influence the learning processes and outcomes of individual employees.

Organizational perspective

In many an organizationally hostile workplace, the division of labor, task fragmentation and vertical supervisory hierarchies are manifest, which imply that the individual learning opportunities are severely restricted compared to other employee-friendly workplaces. Because workers are highly likely to do the same type of job for most of their working time under such working conditions and environments. Consequently they are quite familiar with a certain skill for a job and they might tend to lose opportunities to develop other work-related skills from a wider respect; it in turn restricts the employees’ mobility. In manufacturing industry, for example, less-skilled workers are likely to do exactly repeated jobs for many years. What they have learned is perhaps simply mechanical repetitive skills, and this is evident not in the interests of personal development, not to mention coping with the ever-changing work demands. Survey research already suggests that employers invest less in training lower level workers, and consequently, these groups have fewer (formal) training opportunities than their more senior and secure peers (Beinart and Smith 1998, La Valle and Blake 2001).

The division of labor, task fragmentation and vertical supervisory hierarchies also seriously discourage employees’ learning intention. People nowadays are more aware of the need of updating their work-related skills; however, if employees perceive that they are competent at their jobs, their learning subjectivity can dramatically decrease. Let us imagine at a hostile workplace, worker A is assigned job of type A while worker B is assigned job of type B. Over time they are eventually capable of successfully fulfilling their own share of job, and there are no more requirements of other work skills from them, because the division of labor is clear-cut, and the task fragmentation of task is also strict. All wanted from both A and B are only performing their specifically set tasks. Then it will be challenging for them to keep learning at workplace, for not all people are highly self-motivated, especially without clear goals in their minds or without definite requirements from them, or without the sense of urgency.

Social perspective

M. Weber, one of the most important sociologists in the first half of the 20th century, defined “social acting” in a way, that the sense of the action is related to others’ behavior (Weber, 1922). Social environment plays a very important role in how employees behave and think at workplace. Thus social environment invariably weighs heavy against informal learning among employees, especially between the skillful and the less-skillful. Concerning informal learning, learning-by-observing is largely employed, but it has limitations under this hostile work environment. As mentioned above, the situation of low inter-personal trust and unwillingness of experts to mentor novices surrounds hostile workplace; it is realistically difficult for novices to obtain essential practical knowledge through certain types of informal learning, such as observing or consulting other more skillful coworkers. In a workplace of vertical supervisory hierarchies, it is clear to employees that the more exclusive skills they possess the more power or higher hierarchy they hold; as a result such situation further creates and propelled keeping skills or expertise to themselves among skilled employees—they are unwilling to teach or help their counterparts master any skills, in fear that other less-skilled coworkers are able to share the similar remuneration or working status with themselves. Under work environment like this, it is difficult for new comers or novices to learn effectively at the workplace.

Another phenomenon should be taken into account is age discrimination. The term, age discrimination here, refers to the reduced organizational or formal opportunities of learning for older employees. It is not uncommon that older employees tend to be left behind when it comes to personal and professional developments of the workforce.

Potential learning channels

Employees are able to expand their repertoire of professional skills by engaging in a number of formal learning activities and informal learning activities as well under hostile working environments. Employees can attend relevant learning programmes at their own expenses, though which is not common within workforce in many parts of the world; this tendency, however, is gaining momentum, especially in highly self-propelled groups of workers, for they feel the need to update personal professional skills and expertise to better adapt to this ever-changing world.

According to a survey, conducted by Shelley A. Berg and Seung Youn (Yonnie) Chyung, the most frequently used type of informal learning was reflecting on the previous knowledge and actions (2008). Reflecting is highly likely to be a means of improving professional knowledge and skills. Donald Alan Schön emphasized that reflection is a way in which professionals can bridge the theory-practice gap, based on the potential of reflection to uncover knowledge in and on action (Schön 1983). Reflective learning is the process of internally examining and exploring an issue of concern, triggered by an experience, which reacts and clarifies meaning in terms of self and which results in a changed conceptual perspective (Boyd & Fales, 1983). In the context of learning, reflection is a generic term for intellectual and affective activities, in which individuals engage their experience to create and clarify meaning in terms of self, and which results in a changed conceptual perspective (Boud et al., 1985).

Reading relevant journals, trial and error, and web-based learning are also alternative vehicles of learning. By reading professional journals one are able to know the latest advancement and development in his/her working area, to get in touch with technological progress, and thus broadens one’s horizon and keep fresh professional mind. Nowadays people have great access to most information they need through the Internet. With regard to learning, the net provides vast professional techniques and information to ordinary people, it is possible to learn as much knowledge as one wishes through the net, but our epistemic beliefs might set boundaries to this kind of learning. Though in hostile workplace, it is difficult to get help from other coworkers concern learning, trial and error can greatly facilitate employees to learn, which involves trying several possibilities and learning from mistakes. Learning will speed up if people combine some of the methods mentioned above. Let us imagine, through trial and error, one knows what are wrong, then read relevant journals or reading information on the net, it is highly likely that huge amount knowledge will be filled into the mind.

In hostile workplace, the processes of learning might be more difficult; the determination and energy of learning might be called for from employees, for the learning resources or supportive factors are reduced. Be that as it may, workplace learning can still take place, even in hostile working environments.


Books and Journals

  • Beinart, S., & Smith, P. (1998). National Adult Learning Survey 1997, Research Report 49.  (Nottingham:Department for Education and Employment).
  • Billet, S. (2001). Learning through work: workplace affordances and individual engagement. Journal of Workplace Learning. Volume 13(5) pp. 209-214.
  • Boud, D., Keogh, R. & Walker, D. (1985). Reflection: Turning experience into learning. London: Kogan Page.
  • Boyd, E., & Fales, A. (1983). Reflective learning key to learning from experience. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 23(2), pp. 99-117.
  • Gustavo, G., (2008). Sharing practical knowledge in hostile environments: a case study, Journal of Workplace Learning,20(3), p.196. Retrieved November 11, 2010, from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 1464256831).
  • La Valle, I., & Blake, M. (2001). National Adult Learning Survey (NALS) 2001, Research Report 321 (Nottingham: Department for Education and Skills).
  • Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How practitioners think in action. New York: Basic Books.
  • Shelley A. B., & Seung Youn (Yonnie) Chyung. (2008). Factors that influence informal learning in the workplace. Journal of Workplace Learning, 20(4), p. 234.  Retrieved November 11, 2010, from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 1484477891).
  • Δικαίος, Κ., Κουτούζης, Μ., Πολύζος, Ν., Σιγάλας, Ι., & Χλέτσος, Μ. (1999). Βασικές Αρχές Διοίκησης Διαχείρισης (Management) Υπηρεσιών Υγείας. Ενότητα 1.2., ΕΑΠ: Πάτρα.


  • Ketterl, K., & Hirschmann, M. (2010) Workplace Learning, LLEES: University of Turku
  • Palonen, T., (2010). Skill acquisition and development of expertise, LLEES: University of Turku



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