People Skills Training:
Are You Getting a Return on Your Investment?
by Dennis E. Coates , Ph.D.
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 customized leadership
development program. I worked hard on these projects, 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 organizations core business. Examples include
machine operation, computer protocols, safety standards, financial
procedures and sales administration. These skills are typically easy to
observe, quantify and measure. They're also easy to train, because most
of the time 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 theyre 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.
Obviously, people come to organizations with interpersonal behavior
patterns already thoroughly ingrained, and they werent learned in a
classroom. Instead, individuals learn how to deal with relationships and
other life challenges on the street at a very early age. 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 behaviors may be effective, but others cause
problems. By the time employees get to a training room, theyve already
worked hard for decades to reinforce the way they deal with people.
Like all behavior patterns, interpersonal skills are hard-wired in the
neuronal pathways of the cerebral cortex. This means that at some point
a behavior was repeated often enough that neurons grew dendrites that
reached out to other neurons to make the connections needed to make
behavior 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
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 doesnt work like a digital computer. There is no
delete key for unwanted programs. 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. The only way to replace an old pattern will be to establish a
new one that gets better results. If this new pattern proves to be more
satisfying than the old pattern, and if theres an adequate period of
reinforcement, theres a chance that new connections will establish
themselves. If the new pathway is a superhighway, it can become the
preferred conduit, and over time even a familiar path associated with
lots of memories will eventually fall into disuse, just like old Route
Without this reinforcement, however, the pathways will not establish
themselves, and 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 organization
invests heavily in a people skills training program, 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 mostly wasted.
This is why a program of lectures, group exercises and handoutseven a
week-long course personally conducted by a world-famous celebrity
authorcannot by itself provide enough reinforcement to establish the
new pathways needed to change ingrained behavior patterns. Without
reinforcement, even people who want to change are likely to return to
their comfortable patterns, and so dysfunctional behaviors remain the
same. If this happens too often, employees may come to feel cynical
about people skills programs.
How to Get ROI on People Skills Training
Use 360 feedback to
Repeat 360 feedback to
motivate and measure improvement
Create a plan of follow-up
Define expectations for
Develop skills top-down to
Include special focus on
feedback and encouragement skills
Employ executive coaches to
What an understanding of the brain teaches us about learning is that the
only thing that can create permanent behavioral change is frequent
reinforcement over the long term. If someone who truly desires to change an
interpersonal behavior is supported by a knowledgeable coachs ongoing
encouragement, new patterns can be established. The most useful perspective
on people skills training is that its an essential first stepa necessary
introduction to the right way of doing things. After that, ongoing
reinforcement of desired behaviors has to be there. When a newly trained
individual returns to a workplace, he or she needs knowledgeable coworkers
to give ongoing feedback, guidance and encouragement.
A proven solution is the top-down approach.
If executives start by working on their own people skills, then they can
establish the right expectations and coach their managers. An organization
can employ executive coaches to ensure frequent feedback, encouragement and
reinforcement. Managers can then coach their supervisors, who can coach
their team members. To provide the desired motivation and accountability,
its a good idea to assess people skills in advance of the training. By far,
the easiest, most practical and effective way to do this is 360-degree
feedback, which was designed to provide a reasonably objective assessment of
skills that are otherwise hard to observe, quantify and measure. Identifying
the weak skill areas has two huge benefits. For one thing, training programs
can be focused on the areas of highest need, making the best use of limited
training funds. Second, attendees will have a powerful motivation to change:
the weak areas have been spotlighted, and a repeat assessment can be
administered in the future to evaluate improvement.
People can learn how to work well together.
With an environment of support, encouragement and reinforcement, an
organization can achieve the desired return on a considerable investment in
people skills training. But executives really have to want it to make the
right kind of investment. Theres no magic pillno short cut. Its 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 organization, you have to be willing to pay the price.