The Brain Science of Effective Corporate Soft Skills Training
Companies Mentioned: Deloitte, Salesforce, SAP, Cornerstone, Saba, Skillsoft, Fivel, PageUp, PeopleFluent, Talentsoft, Oracle, SilkRoad, IBM, Lumesse, Litmos, D2L, LearnCore, and Lessonly
Soft skills are “people skills”, and they are extremely important in the commercial sector. They involve showing and feeling empathy, embracing diversity, and understanding that we all have biases that we need to be aware of and keep in check. They involve effective interpersonal interactions and real-time communication skills and are relevant at all corporate levels. Whether office staff who interface with clients, office managers who interface with employees and their superiors, or the C-suite who provide the leadership and vision for the company, effective soft skills matter. An individual with strong soft skills can be an effective collaborator, leader, and “good” citizen. They not only know “what” behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate, but they know “how” to generate those behaviors and do so in a highly effective manner.
As suggested by Deloitte, the movement toward increased automation and artificial intelligence in the workplace has led many in the C-suite to suggest that soft skills are going to become increasingly important in the workplace. The #metoo movement makes glaringly clear that effective soft skills training is lacking in many workplace environments, and in society in general.
Corporate approaches to soft skills training do a good job of teaching employees how to identify and define appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and even offering suggestions for how to behave appropriately, but they are lacking in the use of tools for effective behavior change.
Brain science suggests specific solutions to this problem and can drive innovation and success in the commercial sector. As applied to soft skills training the science is highly suggestive. Training tools targeted directly at behavior change and the systems in the brain that drive behavior are required.
Brain Science of Soft Skills Learning
The human brain has evolved in such a way that there exist two distinct learning systems. One system focuses on learning the “what”, and is referred to as the cognitive skills learning system in the brain. The cognitive skills learning system in the brain learns through passive observation, studying and mental repetition, and recruits the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobes. The second system focuses on learning the “how”, and is referred to as the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. Learning in the behavioral skills system in the brain is active, it involves learning by doing, and physical repetitions, and recruits the basal ganglia. A more detailed discussion of these two systems can be found here.
The most common approach to corporate soft skills training involves having learners read text, view slideshows, and watch videos of appropriate and inappropriate soft skills behaviors. Learners are trained on definitions, how to identify appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, and are given strategies for incorporating appropriate soft skills behavior into their repertoire. This is focused on the “what” and is an important first step in soft skills training.
Unfortunately, most soft skills training programs stop here. It is assumed that the learner will somehow take this “what” information and will convert this into behavior (the “how”). The brain science makes clear that this is highly unlikely, and our own experience reinforces this claim. As anyone who has ever tried to change their own behavior knows, it is much easier to know “what” to do, than it is to learn behaviorally “how” to do it.
Once the learner is well versed on definitions and has strategies in place for effective soft skills, the next step is to train behavior (the “how”). Behavior change occurs when the learner’s behavior is following in real-time, literally within 100s of milliseconds, by feedback that rewards correct behaviors and punishes incorrect behaviors. Thus, the training scenarios must be interactive. Although the detailed neurochemistry is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that behavioral skills are learned gradually and incrementally via dopamine-mediated, error-correction learning in the basal ganglia of the brain. When rewarded, behaviors are more likely to occur in the future, and when punished behaviors are less likely to occur in the future.
Interactive Training Platforms
Traditional approaches train a cognitive understanding of soft skills. These need to be supplemented with interactive approaches that train behavior. Interactive computer-based training platforms, as well as immersive virtual reality (VR) platforms, are available and should be used to complement traditional soft skills training procedures.
The learner can be placed in situations in which they must interact with an individual or avatar who is poor in soft skills so that they learn how to deal with situations like those, or they can be placed in situations in which their behavior is responded to in a negative manner. In other words, they can learn how to affect change in another, or affect change in themselves. Regardless of the platform, whether VR or computer-based, the key is to target the behavioral skills learning system with realistic interpersonal interactions and real-time communication. Behavior change will follow.
Corporate training professions need to beware of platforms that claim interactivity that is not truly interactive. From a brain science of learning perspective, behavior change will only be effective if interactivity involves real-time feedback—that is, rewards and punishments that occur within a few hundred milliseconds of the behavior in question. Providing feedback even several seconds following the behavior will not lead to effective behavior change. Interactivity must occur in real time or it won’t be effective.
Corporate Training Platforms
A number of vendors offer corporate training including Salesforce, SAP, Cornerstone, Saba, Skillsoft, PageUp, PeopleFluent, Talentsoft, Oracle, SilkRoad, IBM, Lumesse, Fivel, Litmos, D2L, LearnCore, and Lessonly, to name a few.
All of these vendors offer soft skills training focused on the cognitive skills learning system in the brain. These vendors are urged to complement their current training platform with real-time interactive training that targets the behavioral skills learning system in the brain. In the end, effective soft skills are effective behaviors that are only learned by engaging the behavioral skills learning system in the brain.