Organizations need employee behavior to conform to workplace performance standards. Managers use training to improve employee’s skills, increase the frequency of preferred behaviors and decrease undesirable behaviors. Social learning theory suggests that an effective strategy to achieve these objectives includes providing opportunities to observe the organization rewarding desired workplace behaviors and punishing inappropriate behaviors.


Early learning theorists, such as B.F. Skinner – an influential psychological researcher, professor at Harvard University and recipient of the first American Psychological Association’s Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology – writing in the 1930’s through the 1950’s, believed that people learn only through behavior-based reward and punishment. Skinner’s behavior based learning theory required workplace managers to establish individualized reward schedules to modify behavior. Called behaviorism, Skinner’s learning theory contrasted with another popular learning theory called cognitive learning theory. Cognitive theorists believed that learning was a passive activity occurring through observation. Albert Bandura, a Stanford professor, proposed a theory that combined attributes of behaviorism and cognitive learning theories. Bandura's theory stated that individuals can learn by observing the rewards and punishment received by others in addition to their own experiences. Bandura’s observation learning theory was renamed social learning theory in 1977 and later called social cognitive learning, beginning in 1986.


Social learning theorists believe that employees can learn appropriate workplace social behaviors by observing the organization’s response to the behavior of other employees. Workers do not need to perform the correct behavior in order to learn it, because they are able to practice the behavior in their imagination. For example, an employee can imagine getting a bonus for a creative idea after observing another employee rewarded for doing so. People imitate the behavior of those they admire or respect. This principle underlies celebrity-based advertising, which assumes individuals want to copy the behavior of popular and successful people.

Management Implications

Workplace managers should note that employees learn acceptable social behaviors by observing the treatment of other employees under various circumstances. Managers must be consistent in their expectations of employee’s social behavior and not give favorite staff or higher-ranking staff special treatment. Social learning theory supports the concept that managers should provide role models of appropriate behavior. Managers can create social learning opportunities through individual rewards or praise given in public settings, such as staff meetings. Conversely, inappropriate social behavior, such as harassment, should be punished uniformly across the workplace to build the correct social context to modify behavior.

Using Social Learning Theory in Training

Applying principles of social learning theory to workplace training encourages instructors to include anecdotal stories and demonstration videos or play-acting exercises to reinforce concepts of appropriate and inappropriate workplace behavior. Social learning theory supports the concept that classroom training effectiveness improves when students admire the instructor. Trainers can take advantage of this predisposition by having guest lectures from successful employees.