How to Engage People on Reskilling: A Language Lesson

How can leaders speak about reskilling programs in ways that motivate people to act? Apply this advice gleaned from an experiment at Vodafone.

Reading Time: 5 min 


  • Carolyn Geason-Beissel/MIT SMR | Getty Images

    Reskilling has become an imperative rather than merely a growth opportunity. Technology advancements like generative AI have led the World Economic Forum to project that 44% of employees will experience skill disruptions in 2023. On the surface, organizations seem to be rising to this challenge: Thirty-four percent of Fortune 50 companies have made reskilling and upskilling top strategic priorities and have designated a hefty 1.5% of their annual budgets to support them, according to research from Boston Consulting Group.

    However, despite the level of investment in reskilling infrastructure, such as learning programs and talent technology platforms, we find that organizations are undervaluing the need to change employee behavior through effective engagement strategies. Having a well-designed reskilling program doesn’t help an organization if people don’t sign on to participate in it. To achieve a shift, leaders must understand how to connect people with reskilling initiatives in ways that encourage them to take up learning.

    In an experiment conducted by a team of behavioral scientists from consultancy MoreThanNow and global telecommunications company Vodafone, we found that while most leaders talk about reskilling as an opportunity for individual progress and/or a means to achieving company strategy, a more frank, assertive message about keeping their skills relevant in a digital future drove more people to act. We present this evidence on how to change behaviors to help leaders connect their employees with the vast organizational investments being made in reskilling and upskilling.

    Career Relevancy Resonates

    Our randomized, controlled experiment, which included a global sample of 800 Vodafone employees, aimed to identify the language and motives that would best engage people to explore Vodafone’s case for change. We compared four different message types that introduced the company’s learning offering and why employees should sign up for it:

    1. Individual progression: You’ll invest in your career path and thrive in a digital future.
    2. Company strategy: You’ll help transform Vodafone into a technology company for a digital future.
    3. Learning enjoyment: You’ll put the joy of learning into your work as you discover new skills and capabilities every day.
    4. Career relevancy and security: You’ll develop skills and competencies for the digital future.

    While most leaders and organizations tend to use messages 1 and 2 when talking about reskilling, we found that No. 4’s more direct “career relevancy and security” message had the highest positive impact on attitudes toward reskilling into technology-focused roles. The employees who received that message were, on average, 4.7% more open to broader career options and 4.9% more likely to consider reskilling compared with employees who had received the other messages — despite the time and effort the program would require. While these numbers might seem small in magnitude, they are statistically significant, come from a cost-free change in language, and are scalable.

    Perhaps more notably, the experiment showed that people who received the “career relevancy” message were more likely — by 14.7% — to explore reskilling opportunities on Vodafone’s internal site, which provides a tangible way to measure how Vodafone’s employees actually invest their time in developing their skills.

    Three Reskilling Communication Tips for Leaders

    Message 4 made more of an impact with the open, honest, and clear message about the necessity to reskill.

    Decades of research show why losses loom larger than gains and how this can be used as an effective language tool to change minds and behaviors. For example, when people are asked to rate the emotional effect of losing or gaining money, they systematically rate losses as having a greater impact. Similarly, in a field experiment conducted with economists, a message telling participants that they would be fined for late conference registrations was significantly more effective than a message offering a discount for early registration.

    That body of research and our own study yielded the following three tips to help managers talk more effectively with their employees about reskilling amid the rise of disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence and generative AI.

    Set the context: Be reassuring but transparent about emerging technologies’ potential impact on employees’ careers. Be honest about the uncertainties around the possible effects of AI and other technologies on job roles rather than communicating only the upsides. Employees often fear that AI will steal their jobs, but it is more likely to change and augment their jobs. Talk about staying proactive to these changes and engaging with upskilling and reskilling opportunities in order to ride the wave of change. This can lead to more active attempts by employees to explore the benefits of increasing their technical knowledge and evolving their roles accordingly.

    Make it relevant: Give personal, specific examples. Talk about the impact of new technologies on the person’s specific work area and outline what might change for the team. Perhaps the way your team develops presentations, processes data, or takes action on customer feedback will change. Identifying specific scenarios will help both you and your employees think about the skills necessary in the evolving tech landscape and create a tangible plan of action.

    Make it real: Offer the best options for the future. Be well informed and open. Talk about training programs employees need to consider as skills for the future rather than as a nice-to-have benefit. It’s easy for employees to get lost in a sea of reskilling program information, and as a manager, you have a responsibility to guide them toward the best future career options that your company has to offer. For example, instead of saying, “I want you to consider a training program to grow your career,” say, “I want you to consider a training program; there’s a possibility that some parts of your role will be automated in the future, so we need to make sure your skills keep evolving.”


    Vodafone’s experiment resulted in successful action: Company leaders changed their language from communicating “individual progression” benefits to a more candid “career relevancy and security” message. When Vodafone launched the first cohort of its reskilling program, it successfully engaged 4,000 employees in Italy using this upfront communication style. Some 300 people have now been successfully reskilled and redeployed from contact centers to other internal functions. In total, one million learning hours have been completed by Vodafone employees.

    We encourage leaders to follow Vodafone’s lead and talk about reskilling with their employees in a more open and direct manner. Your digital future — and the ability of your employees to successfully navigate a changed world — might depend on it.


    More Like This

    You must to post a comment.

    First time here? : Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.