Improving Effectiveness of Soft Skills Training
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How effective is soft skills training?

Can people who are not born with good communication skills learn them through training?

Can people who have retired on the job, who are demoralized, who are cynical about everything because they've seen so many improvement initiatives crash and fail, be retrained?

The topics for soft skills training in the industry to support practitioners include roles of the support practitioner, proaction, improving problem solving through effective communication, and addressing all levels of causes of a problem. One encounters the questions that are listed above fairly often, from managers of practitioners, practitioners themselves. It is here I want to spend some time here clarifying some issues or apprehensions, because in the answers lie the secrets for getting the most out of soft skills training, for successfully improving the skills of even the "untrainable" ones.

Effectiveness of Soft Skills Training

Let's start with "How effective is soft skills training?"

Effectiveness depends on how well the training matches the needs of the participant, the value the participant attaches to the topics being presented, and the willingness of the individual to learn.

The training facilitator and the immediate supervisor/manager of the participant can go a long way to making sure the first two points are covered, but unfortunately the third point is sometimes completely in the hands of the participant

If you are selecting training for yourself or your employees spend some time with the training provider to describe your environment, the problems in your environment, and any specific outcomes you're looking for. The training provider can then make the training much more meaningful for the participant by using relevant examples and spending more time on the particularly relevant topics. If the training provider does not do this, find another one who will. If you expect the participant to attach importance to soft skills training then you must too. You must be encouraging, managing and measuring effectiveness of soft skills by using formal and informal performance appraisals, circulating relevant articles, magazines or web sites, and by demonstrating your own proficiency in the soft skills. One of the biggest complaints I have from participant during trainings I've facilitated, is that their supervisors/managers aren't keeping them informed, that information is hard to get, that they are learning about significant events (such as software installations) after the fact. So, supervisors/managers, before you tell how poor the soft skills of your support practitioners are, how about doing an honest self-evaluation of your own soft skills?

Long ago, at a course which I attended , I had a co-participant shout "This course is useless! I didn't get anything out of it!" My answer was "Then you got out of it exactly what you put into it." To my surprise he became very quiet then said "I guess you're right." He hadn't put anything into it. He had talked, ridiculed, and skipped his way through the term, into a solid failure. No matter how much effort a manager or training provider puts into selecting or delivering training, if the person being trained does not want to learn, then the training is going to fail.

The two most common reasons for not wanting to learn are not attaching enough importance to the training (and we've addressed that point above) and feeling that it is unnecessary, because soft skills have already been mastered and are being practiced. What does this mean from the point of view of a manager about to send support staff on soft skills training? If you have an employee who mistakenly thinks that he or she already has very good soft skills and does not need to go on training then before you waste your training money/budget spend some time giving constructive feedback using examples and feedback from clients and peers. The person must understand that he or she has room for improvement. The irony here is that the person will often get quite angry or sarcastic when the training is proposed, displaying very poor communication techniques to try to convince the manager that no training is required, that the skills really are there.

Can communication skills be learned?

The myth that technical people have some "genetic defect" that prohibits them from learning effective communication is false. In many cases these are just shy or very focused people who have not had the chance to practice their skills. That's all the time I'm going to spend on this issue because it really is not an issue and I have little patience with people who keep trying to put it forward.

On-the-Job Retirees and Cynics
I was facilitating a programme for a Public Sector Company a few years ago. People who are "retired on the job" are those who are convinced that they cannot do anything to make things better. They have relinquished responsibility for the state of things. "Things aren't going to change," they tell me, "we can't do anything to make a difference." They also tell me "It's different here from those other places you teach...we have very demanding work conditions, and our management is not very good..." and so on. (In truth the environments of the people whoever else I've gone in such Public Sector companies are very much the same, the difference being in attitudes.)

What can a trainer do in this situation?
When I encounter on-the-job retirees, I spend a significant amount of time talking about morale, responsibility and accountability. I make the participants figure out how much time they spend at work, what percentage that is of their working lives then talk to them about the quality of that time. Wouldn't it be much better to be able to enjoy that time, to feel as if they were accomplishing something, to know they were making things better?

They would not only improve the quality of working life for themselves but also for their peers. It is demoralizing to work with on-the-job retirees. After I introduce this concept I don't let it go. Everything we do is done in terms of "how can I implement this in my department?"

People try to tell me that they cannot make changes but I bring them back to the notion of accountability. If I do a good job and if there are enough non-retirees in the class then the students start doing this themselves. "Sure there are things you can do," they tell the retirees, "What about...?" and they make several suggestions. In fact, I remember one who was actually a few months away from retirement tell the whole participating group during the final feedback, "How I wish I received this training at the beginning of my career, my life would have changed, but even the next few months of my being in service, I'll put to practice what was experienced during the training and make the difference." That was one of the biggest compliments I ever received and that too from someone mush elder and more experienced than I was at that time.

I handle cynicism in much the same way. I propone that you are responsible for your own life, and aside from a tiny percentage of events, such as death, serious illness or natural disaster, your success is pretty much up to you. You always have a choice. That means that if you are not happy with something that is going on at work you have one of three choices.

Choice number one is learning to live with the situation. This means accepting it without whining.

Choice number two is to change the situation if you can. This requires pro-action or taking responsibility to make things better and I show people how to do this.

Choice number three is to leave, to find another job. By leaving you will improve things for yourself and the people who work with you because while you are whining or being very cynical about a situation you aren't much fun to be around and you can't be enjoying yourself very much.

I tell my participants that I find it hard to believe that they are so unmarketable that they would be unable to find another job. I also tell them that if they feel they are unmarketable then they should really pay attention in this course and start beefing up their skills so that they can find another job.

If you're thinking that handling "on-the-job retirees" and cynicism sounds like a lot of work, you're right. It is exhausting. But it is exhilarating to feel that even a minor success has been achieved and almost euphoric to get a phone call that says "That training you've delivered has really made a difference to the people in my department...their whole attitude is different."

When does this kind of success happen?
When supervisors/managers spend time with training providers telling them about the people that will be trained, about the environment, about the reasons for any challenging behaviours or attitudes. This gives the training provider more ammunition and planning time to handle retirees and cynics and to try to turn attitudes around.

In Conclusion

To get the most out of your soft skills training budgets make sure your training provider understands your environment, the people in it, the challenges they face, and the results you are looking for.

Be sure that the training provider is willing to use this information to make the training more meaningful to your practitioners.

Show your support for good soft skills by making sure your own skills are excellent and by sharing articles or web sites containing information which improves or promotes soft skills.

Give constructive feedback often, and reward good performance in the softer skills whenever and wherever you can.

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