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Date Created: 12/21/15
One of the reasons I got involved in 360-degree By contrast, “soft skills” (also called “people skills”) feedback technology over ten years ago was are typically hard to observe, quantify and measure. People skills are needed for everyday life as much as the frustration I experienced as a management consultant. A typical assignment had me creating they’re needed for work. They have to do with how and presenting a customized leadership develop- people relate to each other: communicating, listening, ment program. I worked hard on these projects, engaging in dialogue, giving feedback, cooperating conducted some ﬁrst-rate training and was well as a team member, solving problems, contributing in meetings and resolving conﬂict. Leaders at all levels paid for my efforts. The problem was, while the courses were well received, they had little or no rely heavily on people skills, too: setting an example, impact. In a few weeks, most participants re- teambuilding, facilitating meetings, encouraging inno- turned to their comfortable but ineffective habits. vation, solving problems, making decisions, planning, At ﬁrst I blamed myself. Over time, however, I delegating, observing, instructing, coaching, encour- aging and motivating. discovered that the problem wasn’t me. It had to do with the very nature of “soft skills.” Obviously, people come to organizations with interper- Hard skills vs soft skills. sonal behavior patterns already thoroughly ingrained, In the world of work, “hard skills” are technical or ad- and they weren’t learned in a classroom. Instead, indi- viduals learn how to deal with relationships and other ministrative procedures related to an organization’s core business. Examples include machine opera- life challenges “on the street” at a very early age. They tion, computer protocols, safety standards, ﬁnancial observe how the people around them do things, they procedures and sales administration. These skills experiment, and they stick with what works for them. are typically easy to observe, quantify and measure. So everyone ends up with a unique portfolio of people skills; some behaviors may be effective, but others They’re also easy to train, because most of the time the skill sets are brand new to the learner and no cause problems. By the time employees get to a train- unlearning is involved. ing room, they’ve 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 cere- bral cortex. This means that at some point a behav - ior 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 elec- tric 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 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 there’s an adequate period of reinforcement, there’s a chance that new connec - tions 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 66. Ensuring success. 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 organiza- tion invests heavily in a people skills training pro- gram, 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 handouts—even a week-long course personally conducted by a world-famous celebrity author—can- not by itself provide enough reinforcement to establish the new pathways needed to change ingrained behav- ior 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. Frequent reinforcement. reasonably objective assessment of skills that are What an understanding of the brain teaches us about otherwise hard to observe, quantify and measure. learning is that the only thing that can create perma- Identifying the weak skill areas has two huge bene- nent behavioral change is frequent reinforcement ﬁts. For one thing, training programs can be focused over the long term. If someone who truly desires to on the areas of highest need, making the best use of change an interpersonal behavior is supported by a limited training funds. Second, attendees will have a knowledgeable coach’s ongoing encouragement, new powerful motivation to change: the weak areas have patterns can be established. The most useful perspec - been spotlighted, and a repeat assessment can be tive on people skills training is that it’s an essential ﬁrsadministered in the future to evaluate improvement. step—a necessary “introduction” to the right way of doing things.After that, ongoing reinforcement of de- People can learn how to work well together. sired behaviors has to be there. When a newly trained With an environment of support, encouragement and individual returns to a workplace, he or she needs reinforcement, an organization can achieve the de- knowledgeable coworkers to give ongoing feedback, sired return on a considerable investment in people guidance and encouragement. skills training. But executives really have to want it to make the right kind of investment. There’s no magic A proven solution is the top-down approach. pill—no short cut. It’s like losing weight. If you really If executives start by working on their own people want to keep the pounds off, you have to establish skills, then they can establish the right expectations new eating and exercise habits. If you want lasting and coach their managers. An organization can em- changes in your organization, you have to be willing ploy executive coaches to ensure frequent feedback, to pay the price. encouragement and reinforcement. Managers can then coach their supervisors, who can coach their team members. To provide the desired motivation and accountability, it’s 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 About the author Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D. is CEO of Performance Support Systems, Inc., based in Newport News, VA. He coordinates research and development and provides strategic direction for the company. He is the author of 20/20 Insight GOLD, an award-winning 360º feedback system (www.2020insight.net). Denny is also the original author of MindFrames personal- ity test and all of the MindFrames reports on www.Initforlife.com. A graduate of West Point, Denny has over 35 years’ experience as a manager and leader. His military as- signments focused on training development and personnel management and included service in Vietnam and Germany. He earned his Ph.D. at Duke University and has served on the faculties of the United States Military Academy, the Armed Forces Staff College, the College of William and Mary, and Thomas Nelson Community College. In addition, he was an adjunct lecturer at the Center for Creative Leadership for ten years. Hundreds of Fortune 1000 companies have beneﬁted from his work in assessment, self-awareness, leadership and team development. He is the author of numerous articles, booklets, and manuals in the areas of cognitive style, leadership, management, training, and creativity. Copyright © 2006, Performance Support Systems, Inc. All rights reserved. This article may be reproduced for internal educational purposes only. Embodiment of this material in products or resale in any form is strictly prohibited.
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