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Social Learning Theory: What is it, Why Your Organisation Should Adopt It

How social learning helps develop meaningful relationships

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“People are social beings and want interaction, and social learning is the primary form of learning, just as word of mouth advertising is the highest form of advertising.” - Stephen M.R. Covey 

Attracting and retaining workers is a key challenge for business leaders. So it's worth looking at Albert Bandura's social learning theory. It's known to improve retention, the trust of your team, and your organisational culture.

Recent research shows that when workplaces provide:

  • positive leadership
  • a sense of purpose
  • opportunities for meaningful connections with colleagues

then their employees’ intent to stay improves by 52%, while their willingness to recommend their employer to others increases by 65%. (1)

In this blog, we'll introduce you to social learning theory and show how it has an influential impact on how employees behave in the workplace.

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What is social learning  

Social learning theory arose from observing that humans learn new patterns of behaviour through direct experience or by observing the behaviour of others.

For example, someone who's never held a baseball bat would have a good idea how to swing it by watching others.

The idea that employees can learn appropriate workplace social behaviors by observing other workers is an eye-opening one. Leaders who model positive behaviour and create opportuntities for their teams to engage in purposeful and meaningful activities together, can shape a dynamic and healthy workplace culture.

Definition of social learning

The dictionary definition of social learning theory is learning behaviour that is controlled by environmental influences rather than by innate or internal forces. (Brittanica). It's marries up behavioral learning theory (learning comes from responding to the stimuli in our environment) and cognitive learning theory (determined by psychological factors).

At its heart are the natural human behaviours of watching and imitating others, and co-learning ‘moments’ experienced along the way. (2)

Psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1960s proposed four mediational processes (thought processes) when we watch the behaviour of another person:

  • attention (noticing the behaviour);
  • retention (recalling the behaviour);
  • reproduction (trying out the behaviour);
  • motivation (deciding if the reward for performing the behaviour outweighs the costs).

Leaders who understand social and emotional learning can use this theory to spread desirable behaviours (and quash undesirable ones) throughout the organisation.


According to social learning theory, humans learn by observing the behaviour of others. For this observation to be effective, however, one must be paying attention to the model (a live person, a fictional person, a verbal instructional model). Interestingly, Bandura observed that a presenter on a television screen (as most are in 2022) was more powerful in commanding attention than other forms of 'verbal characterisation'.

Conversely, anything that distracts the attention will have a negative effect on observational learning.

For instance, if the speaker is uninteresting or there is nothing novel about the situation, it is less likely that an observer will dedicate their full attention to learning.

If the speaker is interesting or there is something new about the situation, it is more likely that an observer will pay close attention and absorb the information being presented.

Therefore, attention plays a critical role in social learning theory and observational learning.

This is proven out by a Bandura experiment which involved children watching an adult behave violently towards a bobo doll (one that tips and then rights itself). For all the wrong reasons this certainly got their attention, and afterwards the children imitated the aggression of the adult.


Retention, or the ability to store information and retrieve it later, is another important aspect of social learning theory. This process is essential in order for observational learning to take place. Retention can be affected by a number of factors, such as the type of information being learned, the learner's motivation, and the level of rehearsal or practice.

However, the ability to recall information later and use it in a new situation is key to social learning. Without retention, we would simply forget what we have observed and be unable to apply it to other situations.

You can see from the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve (below) that without reinforcing what you have learned, 90% of information is lost within the first 7 days. As the biggest drop happens just hours after you learn new information, it’s always a good idea to go back to the training material within the next few days.

From 20-100% of information is retained when demonstrated, discussed or practised with others, or worked through with a coach.



The Forgetting Curve. Image: Growth Engineering blog 'What is the Forgetting Curve?'


In order for social learning to take place, three things must occur: observation (of a model), retention (of the information that was observed), and reproduction (of the behavior that was observed).

Reproducing the behavior, especially practising it over and over, helps you cement the learning and better perform the behaviour. For example, after Growth Faculty masterclasses we encourage teams to use the provided Conversation Starter questions in a team discussion. This is social learning in action, and helps retention and reproduction.

As we know, social learning theory indicates people can learn from both live models (the people presenting the information) and symbolic models (such as through books, video/television, and podcasts). Not having a live model to watch and imitate is no barrier to learning new behaviors.


"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink." This famous saying sums up the importance of having the will to emulate a behaviour. We know that the more we imitate a behavior, the better our chances of success. The key is motivation. You need both reinforcement and punishment for observational learning to be most effective.

An employee getting rewarded for a behaviour will motivate us to do something similar. An example might be someone speaking up in a meeting and being congratulated by the manager. By contrast, an employee getting punished will demotivate us. An example might be the same employee speaking up in a meeting and being told "That's never going to work!" or "Not now!'

In this way, we are learning the organisational culture through observing the consequences of the actions of those arund us rather than from our own experience.

Benefits of Social Learning in the workplace

  • Positive behaviour is multiplied. Colleagues will mirror the traits of others who are rewarded for positive behaviours. Rewarding learners will create more learners. 
  • Building connections for remote workers. With more and more people working from home or other remote locations, social learning gives them a sense of belonging, and keeps them communicating, engaged, and maintaining connections at work.
  • Deepens the understanding of desired behaviours. “Show, don’t tell” is a powerful learning tool.
  • Knowledge management. Research shows most companies credit knowledge sharing for improving productivity by up to 40%.(3)
  • Positive habits can form. Imitating others with good habits will help to ingrain the learned habit.
  • Learning from good role models. People want to identify with others and their achievements. Within their own limits, they will see if such behaviours work for them.  

Employee engagement and social learning

Research published in HBR links lifelong learning to happiness. Social learning amplifies this, and improves:

  • Retention - 94% of employees say they'd stay at a company longer if it invested in their learning development (LinkedIn 2019 Workplace Learning Report)
  • Performance - Study shows training and development is a significant motivator for employees.
  • Engagement - Research shows significant effect on job satisfaction, organisational commitment, advocacy, pride, intention to stay, and overall employee engagement score. 

History of Social Learning Theory  

As we touched on earlier, social learning theory was first proposed in the 1960s by Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura, who showed that behaviour is learned, at least in rough form, before it is performed. People choosing whether or not to perform the behaviour will be strongly influenced by the consequences of such actions.

We've learned his key pillars of observation, attention, retention, reproduction/modelling (acting out or describing something) and motivation.

A key to his theory is that learning is reinforced when the behaviour is rewarded or punished. By observing others, Bandura says, one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action.(4)

For leaders, social learning is a powerful way to multiply desired leadership qualities, behaviours, values, and skills. It takes awareness at all times of your responses to the actions of others.

Foundations of Social Learning Theory

Just a word on this Social Learning Theory pillar that people learn through observation.

You should know that observing a behaviour doesn't necessarily change the behaviour of the person doing the observing. It depends on the social context, whether the observed behaviour is positively or negatively reinforced, and how good at self-regulation they are.


Sharing and rewarding 

Bandura’s research shows learning progresses when certain factors are in place:  

  • Learning can happen when people not only observe a behaviour but observe any consequences (were they rewarded or punished?). 
  • Modelling the behaviour (acting out or describing something) can lead to knowledge, however it doesn’t always change behaviour in others. 
  • Reinforcement plays a role in learning. Pride, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment are ways to reinforce learning.  
  • Sharing and collaboration between peers is an important part of the process; people should play a mutual influence on one another (reciprocal determinism). (6)  

How Leaders Apply Social Learning Theory to Organisations

Many leaders learn from personal experience, aka “the school of hard knocks.” But social learning experts argue learning alone is the school of “too hard” knocks.   

"Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do.” - Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory. 

A more enjoyable and easier path is via peer learning or social learning - exchanging knowledge with others through collaboration, observation, and interactions.

A successful organisation reflects a group a skilled, innovative, intelligent people. To achieve this, it must have a learning culture that is engaging and effective. Here, employees are always encouraged to learn and grow while their are challenged to further develop their knowledge and skills.  

Incorporate learning into your workplace culture

Learning is both explicit (intentional) and implicit (without conscious awareness). To ensure your workplace culture is healthy, find ways to encourage both implicit and explicit learning.

Try these actions:

  • Bring parties together to deliberate over problems. 
  • Attend masterclasses and webinars together.
  • Do lunch and learns.
  • Undertake shared tasks or learn new skills together.

Embrace differences of opinion, and encourage feedback.

Peers adjust their behaviour based on whether their colleagues rewarded or punished for their contributions. Always be aware of how you respond to the actions and behaviours of others.

  • Reward employees who promote learning.
  • Instil positive reinforcement for the values you want to encourage, and negative reinforcement for those you don't want.
  • Model behaviours you wish to see in your organisation.

For example, let your team know when you are unavailable due to professional development or learning commitments, not just meetings.

Include a mentorship program

A lot of learning can happen informally. A mentorship program can be informal learning, depending on the way it's structured. 

  • Implement an easy way for employees to learn from one another.  
  • Gives leaders the opportunity to model behaviour for others to learn and imitate.

For example, organise coffee catch up between colleagues. Learning about each other in a social setting is as important as learning about team goals and values. 

Encourage communication and connection

With remote and hybrid workers, it's vital to pay attention to learning outcomes in the digital space. Social learning doesn't have to be face-to-face.

  • Leaders should seek out virtual education conferences, think tanks, masterclasses, and lectures that include opportunities for chats, post-event discussion, Q&A, and interactivity.  

For teams who can come together socially, take time away from work to get to know each other.

For example, the Growth Faculty did a breathing workshop followed by an ice bath. By focusing on wellness and a personal challenge, team members were able to laugh and connect.

Actions to take today to develop through social learning:  

Both leaders and their teams benefit from exchanging knowledge when learning. This is one of the many reasons leaders should hire impact players, or as Jim Collins says in a popular quote, get the "right people on the bus."

Then, have them join you as learning partners on a social learning journey. 

  1. Observation - Search out thought leaders, peers, and mentors to learn from.  
  2. Attention- Remove distractions. Set aside time for your learning sessions.  
  3. Retention - Take notes. Participate in the chat or in post-event discussion.  
  4. Reproduction - Implement (reproduce) something you learned. Try acting it out!   
  5. Motivation - Ask for feedback. Be vulnerable. Share your experience with others. 

How a Leadership Pass benefits social learning

Leaders wanting to build high performing teams should consider shared learning experiences as the way to spread the right values through their organisation, engage and retain quality staff, earn their trust, and increase team skills.

A Leadership Pass creates more than 40 opportunities a year for teams to participate in live and interactive social learning experiences. Each virtual event connects established and aspiring business leaders to the world’s brightest minds. Growth Faculty’s U-Learn Framework in our Avoid Obsolete: Build a Culture of Learning monograph outlines all the ways a Leadership Pass brings social learning into the workplace.


In a world where we are all becoming more connected, it's important to be able to learn from one another. Social learning offers this opportunity for collaboration by allowing interactions between people in different departments or teams, or sharing experiences within teams.

Leaders taking the hard-knocks path risk becoming accidental diminishers who lose respect, staff, their confidence, or the company’s profits. Social learning with a Growth Faculty Leadership Pass is the most effective way leaders can improve their leadership qualities and the skills of their teams.   


1. 2021 Global Employee Engagement Benchmark study

2. Georgina Cundill, Sheona Shackleton, Lawrence Sisitka, Monde Ntshudu, Heila Lotz-Sisitka, Injairu Kulundu, Nick Hamer (2014) Social Learning for Adaptation Handbook 

3. F.Ahmad and M.Karim, 2019, Impacts of Knowledge Sharing; A review for directions for future research, Journal of Workplace Learning.

4..K. Cherry, (2021) How Social Learning Theory Works, Very Well Mind website.

5. . C. Schubert (2014) All Lights on Real-Life Social Learning Case Studies, CGIAR 

6. K.Cherry (2021) How Social Learning Theory Works, Very Well Mind  

7. Georgina Cundill, Heila Lotz-Sisitka, Mutizwa Mukute, Million Belay, Sheona Shackleton & Injairu Kulundu (2014) A reflection on the use of case studies as a methodology for social learning research in sub Saharan Africa, NJAS: Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 69:1, 39-47, DOI: 10.1016/j.njas.2013.04.001 

8. Bandura, A., & Walters, R.H. (1963). Social learning and personality development from article by Dariya Lopukhina (2019) Social Learning as a Way to Foster Productivity in the Workplace, Business2Community 


If you'd like to increase your professional and personal development why not consider becoming a Growth Faculty Pass Holder? Unlimited access to 40 live virtual masterclasses and Global Headliner virtual events - PLUS year-round leadership content at On Demand with videos, podcasts and book summaries. Join a community of knowledge seekers who are inspired by the best. See what's included. 

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