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Stop Measuring ROI on Soft Skills Training

Many, perhaps most, of our clients tend to ask us about how they can measure the returns from Trusted Advisor workshops. However, I suspect their reasons are a little opaque. More often than not, these buyers are already persuaded of the benefits. The potential clients who are truly skeptical are rarely the ones who actually call–nor are they likely to be persuaded, even by a hard-nosed ROI calculation. 

So – why are they asking?

Let’s tackle a garden variety corporate orthodoxy: the one that says your company shouldn’t do training without a measurable return on your training investment.

Variations on the theme: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; all training must be defined in terms of behavioral objectives; each objective must link to behavioral milestones, each quantifiable and financially ratable.

Let me speak plainly: Subjecting soft-skills training to pure skills-mastery financial analytics is intellectually dishonest, wrong-headed, useless at best and counter-productive at worst.

There, I said it.

Now let me explain – and offer an alternative.

There are are sprinklings of truth in the rush to measure soft-skills ROI – but they are surrounding a germ of falsehood at the heart of the matter.

The ROI-behavioral view of training is fine for pure cognitive or pure behavioral skills. If your focus is on teaching Mandarin to oil company execs, mastering the report generation functions of CRM systems, or teaching XML programming, you can stop reading this now.

But if you’re talking about communications skills, trust, customer relationships, listening, negotiation, speaking, giving and receiving feedback, consultative thinking, influencing, persuasion, team-building and collaboration, then read on.  There are at least four problems with measuring “return” on these kinds of programs.

First problem: definitions. We evaluate golf coaching by lowered golf scores—neat, clean, unarguable. But try defining “good communication.” Or trust. Or negotiation. You might as well define the taste of water, or the quality of love. To accept behavioral indicators (“she smiles, she touches me”) is to miss an essence.

Second: causality. All causality is unprovable, though we know when to accept it anyway. “I had 3 lessons with a golf coach, and cut my score by 8 strokes. It was the coaching—you can quote me!”

But what if I take one course in trust, and another in listening. Suppose my sales go up next year by 50%. Which course did it? Or did my company’s 70% growth have something to do with it? Or my happy new marriage? Too many variables.

Third: the Hawthorne effect. (Or, the Heisenberg Principle in physics). Sometimes the act of measuring alters the measurement of the thing being measured. If I know I’m being graded on listening, I’ll do whatever it is I think that you think makes me look like I’m listening. Which destroys real listening.

If you hype net-promoter scores, many will game the scoring – thus reducing the genuineness that underlay the original idea.

Fourth: the perversion of individual measurement. Most soft skills deal with our relationships to others. The drive to individually behavioralize, then metricize, has the effect of killing relationships by focusing on the individual – an ironic outcome for relationship-targeting training.

Suppose a course teaches focusing more on the customer, listening, helping others achieve their goals, helping teammates grow – worthy objectives, found in many programs.

The usual reason to define those results financially is to evaluate them financially. Thus someone – somewhere between the CEO and the person getting trained – is responsible for deciding to do more, or less, relationship-building programs – by using short-term individual measurements, often with short-term incentives.

Hence the perversity: training people to focus on relationships, by measuring and rewarding them individually.

“The more unselfish you are, the more money we’ll give you for being unselfish.
“The more you get rated as providing ‘excellent customer service,’ the more we’ll pay you” (which leads to pathetic begging by CSRs)
“The more you focus on others, the more we’ll pay you.
“Quick, get over here, I want to genuinely listen to you so I can raise my quarterly bonus and get promoted.”

Raise this perversity to the level of an industry over decades, and you can understand why pharmaceutical and brokerage companies have accrued such low ratings on trust.

So what’s the answer? Simple. And you don’t even have to give up your addiction to metrics.

Just measure subjective rankings.

Ask people these simple questions, over time:

1. Would you do that training again?
2. Would you recommend others attend?
3. Would you include it in your budget?
4. How do you rate that training compared to these other five programs?

You can run regressions, chi-squares and segmentations on that data to your heart’s content – as long as it’s measuring subjective data in ranking terms. Just stop trying to monetize interpersonal relationships by measuring ROI on soft skills training.

And for those of you still interested in seeing some data – I recommend our Trust360 multi-rater assessment tool. It’s not going to measure your ROI from a soft-skill training, but when you run a program as a before and after, you’ll be able to see and track key, measurable changes and improvements as a result of a soft-skill program. We recommend running a Trust360 in advance of a program and then again, for the same group, about 6 months later. Our clients who have done so have seen measurable results that still focus on the changes in soft skills, how the program and the Trust360 provided key insight to allow participants to really get to the root of the trust-building in relationships.

Give it a go – talk to us about it. What’s the downside?

 

The Antidote to Resentment

A lot of time is wasted debating the relative merits of “hard” and “soft” skills. The right response is almost always “both,” and “it depends.”  I want to focus here on the “both” part.

There is a growing belief – particularly in tech and in consultative professions (and everything is becoming both tech and consultative) – that we should approach the ‘soft’ stuff in ‘hard’ terms, i.e. through metrics, short-term goals, competency models and the like.

Treating ‘soft’ skills this way completely disintegrates them. You can’t have both if you’ve turned one into the other.

Case in point: dealing with resentments in the business world.

You Might Be Copping a Resentment If…

You may not think you’re a resentful person. And maybe, graded on a curve, you’re not.

But how often do you find yourself muttering at the driver who cut you off; re-litigating arguments in your head, where you win this time; waking up in the middle of the night pre-occupied with your checking account; and gossiping with someone about how so-and-so really isn’t all that?

All those are versions of wishing you could change reality – when you can’t. And that’s pretty much resentment.

It’s the difference between hoping and wishing. Hoping things will change is fine, particularly if you’re doing something to help the change. But wishing that things were other than they are – that’s living in an alternative universe. That’s resentment. It’s fine to hope you win the lottery—as long as you bought a ticket. But wishing you’d won last week’s lottery – that’s resentment.

By living in an alternative universe, you’re playing at being God. (Unless, worse yet, you think it’s not play, and you actually believe that all your wishing makes a dime’s worth of difference to Reality). Well, hear this: there is a God – and you’re not it.

Resentment tends to eventually manifest as resentment against other people. But personal resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. All it does is eat you up from inside, while the Resented One is either blissfully unaware, or at least generally doesn’t give much of a damn.

Why Resentment Kills Sales and Influence

This is not afternoon TV psycho-babble. It makes a daily difference in business – a huge difference.

If you are prone to the Black Art of Resentment, then you are likely to believe in short cuts, quick fixes, fad diets, new interpersonal techniques, flashy methodologies, and come-on lines for dating bars – because all those gimmicks appeal to your desire to live in a world other than this one: one in which you can dominate, control, bend the other’s will to your desire. And when they let you down – and they do, and they will – you will once again feel your Old Friend Resentment (or its kissing cousin, self-pity).

People don’t buy from those who are trying to change them. People don’t pay attention to people who are trying to persuade them. People don’t take advice from those whose egos are tied up in having their advice taken. (Interestingly, people of both genders also don’t like to date people who are needy; they prefer people who appear independently self-contained).

We interpret all those things as attempts to manipulate, and we shun the manipulator. This is not a good thing.

It also has serious business consequences. It makes for salespeople who can’t sell; advisers whose advice isn’t taken; and relationship managers that people don’t relate to. The absence of soft skills has dramatically hard results.

 

The Best Way to Sell and Influence

The best way to sell and influence is to get rid of resentment; to get rid of living in alternative universes; to accept everything, starting with the customer in front of you.

Acceptance in this case means taking them at face value, getting to know them on their terms, giving up all attachment to your outcome (because that’s about you, not them) – and applying your focus, energy and attention to simply helping them. Let’s call that, for lack of a better term, empathetic client focus.

If you do that, and spend your time and energy seeking to understand them, you’ll do a far better job of connecting with them than all the other resentment-fueled alternate-universe salespeople and advisors.

One result of which is – you’ll end up selling more and having your advice taken more often.

Is that a paradox? Definitely. But it’s life. People buy from those who don’t try to sell them. People listen to those who listen to them, not those who talk. The best way to sell it to stop selling. The best way to influence is to shut up.

Training to Get Rid of Resentments

You do not get rid of resentments by examining best practices.  You don’t banish resentments by designing a training program based on four levels of resentment-coping skills, with behavioral metrics indicating competencies at successive levels.

Instead, you get rid of resentments by doing a Jedi mind trick; an emotional/spiritual jiu jitsu flip; a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion. You have to come to believe that you are not God – and that all your resentments are nothing more than an attempt to claim otherwise, doomed to fail because your whole approach is selfishly based on You trying to dominate Them. It doesn’t work. They push back.

In practical terms, the solution is not the usual ‘act your way into right thinking.’ Instead, this new perspective comes about through conversations with others; through reflection; through role-playing; and through discussion with others about shared experiences. This is a different approach to corporate training – but a necessary one for certain advanced ‘soft’ skills.

Goals are Great, but An Expectation is a Pre-meditated Resentment

Goals are great. So are objectives and milestones and targets. They give you a sense of what you’re aiming for, and help you envision the to-be state.

But don’t confuse goals with their purpose. The purpose of a goal is not to achieve the goal – the purpose of a goal is to help you achieve your True Purpose. You should never confuse a quarterly sales quota with a Purpose.

It’s when goals get transmuted into expectations that we confuse goals with purpose. When we start living in that alternative universe defined by the goals, when we start obsessing over the new car, winning the contest, getting the boss’s approval, ranking in the top 20% on the bonus plan – that’s when we begin to have expectations. And an expectation is a pre-meditated resentment.

Think. Do. Accept. Rinse and repeat.

Plan, set goals, and strive. Then celebrate what you get; because to bemoan what you haven’t got is to live in resentment. A life spent wishing you were other than you are is a failed attempt at playing God, and a recipe for unhappiness – and for poor sales and unheeded advice.

 

Acquiring Soft Skills: You Gotta Practice the Scales

You’ve heard this one.

The New York tourist asks the cab driver, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice, practice,” comes the answer.

The joke is well known—but sometimes we forget how broadly it applies.

Students of classical and jazz piano and guitar often don’t like doing the scales; but most do them nonetheless. I remember learning to play all seven modes (Dorian, Phyrigian, Lydian, etc.) starting from all four fingers from the same starting fret; then moving up a fret and starting over again.

My guitar teacher told me that the next step was to do the same cycle for minor, major seventh, dominant seventh, diminished and augmented scales. “This is the point,” he somberly told me, “at which all the jazz greats picked up heroin.”

Suppose a music student tells the music teacher, “Scales are boring; I get the concept, that’s all I need. Doing scales just cramps my style and inhibits my improvisational skills.” What does the teacher say?

They typically smile and say, “Yes, the scales are boring—but you’ve gotta do them anyway. Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Etc. etc.

But what about soft skills training? Suppose a corporate training student tells the trainer, “This role-play stuff is boring. I get it, OK? It’s simple. I don’t need to do repetitive drills—it just makes me sound phony.”

What does the trainer say? What does the trainer’s boss say? What do the training department’s clients say?

We Do Muscle Memory Exercises in Music: Why Not in Soft Skills Training?

It’s my experience that, sadly, corporate soft-skills trainers’ responses are not the same as those of music teachers. Faced with resistance, the trainers are more likely to say, “Well, OK, if you say so.”

In fairness to the trainers, it’s not usually their fault. And I don’t think it’s the fault of the client organizations either. I think the blame for it lies with training organization leadership itself—partly for not pushing back, and partly for buying the clients’ rationalizations that somehow you can cognitively understand your way into learning soft skills.

The truth is, there is no substitute for realistic “muscle memory” activity when it comes to learning soft skills. You simply can’t “think your way into” skills like active listening, much less empathetic listening. You can’t just memorize a set of canned “answers” to a buyer’s “objections.” You can’t just write sentences ahead of time and think you have given acceptable feedback. (See the recent movie Up in the Air for an amusing example of cognitive vs. muscle-memory learning).

The equivalent of scales in soft-skills training comes in several forms—role-plays, video replays, case discussions. For my money, nothing beats a “fish-bowl” role-play; two volunteers role-play a case in front of a room. When something happens—and it always does—everyone sees it, and knows it. There is no escaping the real-ness of what just transpired.

If trainers know this is true, why then don’t they insist on it just as strongly as music teachers do? In part, of course, it’s because music teachers are typically older than their pupils; whereas trainers are often junior to, and subordinate to, the line people in their sessions.

One trainer told me of being politely informed by an AmLaw 20 law firm that there would be no role-plays in the upcoming session. “Just discuss the technique,” the partner client said, “our people are smart enough to pick it up quickly—no need to waste time on faux drama.”

The Real Reason for Resisting Soft Skills Drills

As is often the case with negative behavior, fear is at the root. No one, me included, enjoys doing role-plays. I also don’t like the taste of some medicine, but if I’m sick, I will over-rule my taste buds.

In other words, participants just don’t want to do it. Of course, they don’t say that. They say it’s boring, they don’t need it, comprehension is enough, and so on. But it’s the HR folks who let them get away with it.

I find each of the major staff functions has a generic effectiveness issue. For IT staff, it’s speaking in jargon and over-promising. For legal staff, it’s an inability to balance risk-minimization with general management perspective.

And for HR staff—in my experience—the weakness is a desire to be accepted at the Big Table. Combined with the fact that HR people have no secret vocabulary, this means that clients will abuse them. They are too needy, and have no ritualistic skills to protect them from bullies.

And so the students resist doing what the HR people know perfectly well they should do—and the HR people don’t push back.

This is of course my pet theory, though it is based on my experience. What’s yours?

And if you’re an HR person who’s been annoyed by my use of “training” in this blog, let me suggest this: you’re not going to be called “learning and development” by the client people until you start asserting what you know to be right. Go on, stick it to ‘em. Don’t ask for respect until you’ve earned it.

If your students as you how you get to corporate Carnegie Hall, tell ‘em, “Role play, dammit!”