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Once & For All: Stopping Sexual Harassment at Work

Demystifying Soft-Skills Training

Communication. Teamwork. Conflict resolution Conducting effective performance reviews. Problem-solving and ethical decision-making.

Soft skills such as these have a reputation for being hard to teach.  Many executives question the return on investment for soft-skills training, and many employees simply roll their eyes when they’re asked to attend team building or communication skills sessions.

Yet at the same time, hiring managers tell us they struggle to find applicants with the interpersonal skills or critical-thinking ability they seek in qualified candidates.

So what’s the big deal with soft-skills training?  Why does it seem so hard to do, and is that difficulty real, or just perceived?

There are certainly challenges with soft-skills training that aren’t present with technical or hard-skills programs.  Here are six suggestions for how to manage and deliver effective soft-skill training so you achieve the results you and your leadership team want to see.

1.  Consciously recognize and accommodate the differences between hard-skills and soft-skills training.

  • Hard-skill mastery is objective: someone either knows how to do something, or they don’t. Soft-skill mastery is subjective: there are many “right” ways to conduct a meeting or defuse a conflict.
  • Hard skills are usually new to the learner; there’s nothing for them to un-learn and no old habits need to be changed.  Soft skills involve replacing old behavior patterns – habits that were effective at one point in the learner’s life, and/or have been ingrained over the course of many years.
  • Hard skills are knowledge-based, and there’s no stigma attached to not knowing what’s being taught. Soft skills are personal.  Learners may feel as if they’re being asked to change who they are, not just how they behave, and so they may become defensive and resistant.

2.  Emphasize the importance of soft-skills mastery for professional advancement.
When effective interpersonal skills are consistently evaluated as part of eligibility for promotion, employees are motivated to understand where they need to improve, and will pay more attention to the training programs you offer.

3.  Incorporate techniques for measuring soft-skills improvement.
To be taken seriously as a part of the corporate culture, soft-skills mastery must be assessed consistently and fairly across the entire employee population, preferably as part of regular performance evaluations.

4.  Embed organizational values and positive cultural norms into your soft-skills training programs.
Positive cultural norms within the organization enable soft-skills training to have the long-term impact you want. Embed your cultural values (eg accountability, integrity, respect) into your soft-skills training programs and make sure adherence to these desired values and behavioral expectations are included in everyone’s performance evaluation.

5.  Acknowledge and respect employees’ feelings of vulnerability.
Learning new interpersonal skills involves altering individual habits of behavior, many of which are long-term (sometimes decades old) and deeply ingrained. Telling someone they need to change established behavior patterns can feel like an attack, causing defensiveness on a level unlikely to occur when you’re teaching a hard technical skill.

Because of this, many organizations find outside resources such as externally-created instructional materials more effective than in-house programs. In-house programs can feel less safe to the employee who may be anxious that their personality traits are being held against them by managers or even documented in their personnel files. External programs are less threatening and can be viewed from a more objective perspective by the learner, enabling him or her to take in the information rather than defending against it.

6.  Recognize that soft-skills training involves rewiring people’s brains, which takes time.
“Behavior 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.”  (Dennis E. Coates, PhD, CEO of Performance Support Systems, Inc.)

Training programs that incorporate ongoing follow-up support are far more effective in creating sustainable positive change.

Soft skills will probably always be more challenging to teach than hard, technical knowledge. Yet organizations that recognize the bottom-line value of soft-skills education experience lower turnover, greater engagement, increased productivity, better client relations, and many other benefits.

CRM Learning has a wide range of training materials designed to address the challenges of soft-skills training. Let us help you evaluate your needs and get the results you want.

About the Author:
Grace Judson is Founder at Svaha Concepts. She serves on the Board of Directors at ASTD San Diego and was the chapter’s 2013 President.

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