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Soft Skills Training – Are You Getting a Return on Your Investment?

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photo of Denny Coates
Soft skills training events don't work very well because a long-term process is necessary to change behaviour argues Dennis Coates Ph.D. Here he looks at how to achieve permanent results that deliver return on investment.


One of the reasons I got involved in 360-degree feedback technology over ten years ago was the frustration I experienced as a management consultant. A typical assignment had me creating and presenting a customised leadership development programme. I worked hard, conducted some first-rate training and was well paid for my efforts. The problem was, while the courses were well received, they had little or no impact. In a few weeks, most participants returned to their comfortable but ineffective habits. At first I blamed myself. Over time, however, I discovered that the problem wasn't me. It had to do with the very nature of "soft skills."

Hard skills vs. soft skills
In the world of work, "hard skills" are technical or administrative procedures related to an organisation's core business. Examples include machine operation, computer programming, financial procedures and sales administration. These skills are easy to observe and measure. They're also easy to train, because usually the skill sets are brand new to the learner and no unlearning is involved.

By contrast, "soft skills" (also called "people skills") are typically hard to observe, quantify and measure. People skills are needed for everyday life as much as they're needed for work. They have to do with how people relate to each other: communicating, listening, engaging in dialogue, giving feedback, cooperating as a team member, solving problems, contributing in meetings and resolving conflict. Leaders at all levels rely heavily on people skills, too: setting an example, teambuilding, facilitating meetings, encouraging innovation, solving problems, making decisions, planning, delegating, observing, instructing, coaching, encouraging and motivating.

People come to organisations with interpersonal behaviour patterns already thoroughly ingrained. They weren't learned in a classroom. Instead, individuals learn how to deal with relationships and other life challenges "on the street" from childhood. They observe how the people around them do things, they experiment, and they stick with what works for them. So everyone ends up with a unique portfolio of people skills; some behaviour may be effective, but other causes problems. By the time employees get to a training room, they have a lifetime's experience reinforcing the way they deal with people.

Like all behaviour patterns, interpersonal skills are "hard-wired" in the neuronal pathways of the cerebral cortex. This means that at some point a behaviour was repeated often enough that neurons grew dendrites that reached out to other neurons to make the connections needed to make behaviour pattern automatic. A myelin sheath coated the cells like electric wire insulation, making the connection extremely efficient. The end result: these ways of behaving now feel natural, easy and comfortable.

The bottom line
Introducing a new interpersonal skill is extremely difficult because it means replacing the old skill. The brain may be an information processor, but it doesn't work like a digital computer. There is no "delete" key for unwanted programmes. Behaviour patterns are physically established at the brain cell level. Any new pattern, even one that makes sense, even one that is desired and expected, will seem extremely awkward. The only way to replace an old pattern is to establish a new one that gets better results. If this new pattern proves to be more satisfying than the old pattern, and if there's an adequate period of reinforcement, there's a chance that new connections will establish themselves. The new pathway can become the preferred conduit, and over time the "old" habitual path will eventually fall into disuse.

Ensuring success
Without this reinforcement, the pathways will not establish themselves. Most people will predictably fall back on the old, comfortable patterns they grew up with. Unfortunately, this disappointing scenario happens more often than not. An organisation invests heavily in a people skills training programme, no plan for reinforcement is in place, and the intervention fails to have the hoped-for result. There is virtually no return on the investment. The money is wasted.

This is why a programme of lectures, group exercises and handouts cannot by itself provide enough reinforcement to establish the new pathways needed to change ingrained behaviour patterns. Without reinforcement, even people who want to change are likely to return to their comfortable patterns, so dysfunctional behaviours remain the same. Result? Cynicism about people skills programmes.

Frequent reinforcement
What an understanding of the brain teaches us about learning is that the only thing that can create permanent behavioural change is frequent reinforcement over the long term. If someone who truly desires to change an interpersonal behaviour is supported by a knowledgeable coach’s ongoing encouragement, then new patterns can be established. People skills training programmes are an essential first step - a necessary "introduction" to the right way of doing things. But after that, ongoing reinforcement of desired behaviours has to be there. When a newly trained individual returns to a workplace, he or she needs support - ongoing feedback, guidance and encouragement.

A proven solution is the top-down approach
If executives start by working on their own people skills, perhaps with the help of executive coaches, then they can establish the right expectations and start coaching their managers. Managers can then coach their supervisors, who can coach their team members.

It is essential to assess people skills in advance of any training. By far, the easiest, most practical and effective way to do this is 360-degree feedback, designed to provide a reasonably objective assessment of skills that are otherwise hard to observe, quantify and measure. Identifying competence in people skills areas has two huge benefits. First, training programmes can be focused on the areas of highest need, making best use of limited training funds. Second, attendees will have a powerful motivation to change: the weaker areas have been spotlighted. A repeat assessment can be administered in the future to evaluate improvement and encourage further development.

Building on strengths in the team, not just focusing on individual weaknesses
Recognising that ingrained behaviours are difficult to change, an executive may best be advised to use their team members' strengths to complement their weaker areas, rather than try to be someone that they clearly are not. No leader is perfect (as 360-degree feedback will indicate) so sharing of feedback and team-working can make a significant difference. In the words of the Serenity Prayer: "Give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."

People can learn how to work well together
With an environment of support, encouragement and reinforcement, an organisation can achieve the desired return on investment in people skills training. But executives really have to want it to make the right kind of investment. There's no magic pill - no short cut. It's like losing weight. If you really want to keep the pounds off, you have to establish new eating and exercise habits. If you want lasting changes in your organisation, you have to be willing to pay the price.

About the author: Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D. is CEO of Performance Support Systems, Inc., based in Newport News, Virginia. He coordinates research and development and provides strategic direction for the company. He is the author of 20/20 Insight GOLD, an award-winning 360-degree system (www.2020insight.net). Dennis can be contacted at [email protected]

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