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It’s time to teach empathy and trust with the same rigor as we teach coding

This article was originally published in Fast Company.

What are “soft skills,” and what role do they play in work life? For decades, empathy, vulnerability, and trust were derided as too squishy for the hard-charging, competitive world of work. That changed with the explosion of “emotional intelligence” and similar concepts around the turn of the 21st century, led by the researchers Peter Salovey and John Mayer, whose work was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s book of the same name. Leaders awakened to the fact that human skills make work work. But those qualities, like bedside manner in doctors, were also viewed as fixed. Some people just “got it,” and others never would. 

It’s time to let go of this stereotype as well, because soft skills are not soft at all. They’re hard, in at least two ways. First, decades of hard science backs up the idea that more human, connected workplaces thrive, building morale, fostering effective collaborations, and inspiring innovation.  Second, newer work clearly demonstrates that soft skills are skills, not traits: through hard work, people can develop them, benefitting themselves and their colleagues along the way. 

Nearly 20% of Fortune 500 companies provide some type of training in soft skills. But most of these efforts focus on short-term learning, and are only loosely based on social science research. This is far different from how employees learn “hard” skills—often through rigorous, long-term practice, and group work. 

In 2020, we sought to reimagine soft-skills training by asking a simple question: What if organizations taught empathy, integrity, and openness the same way they train coding? 

We are an interdisciplinary group: the head of SAP’s Academy for Engineering; the founder of Mentora Institute—a program that teaches leaders to inspire and connect through principles of human nature and everyday actions; and a professor of psychology at Stanford. The program we created has now graduated over 156 engineering managers across India, China, Brazil, and North America, who in turn lead 2,156 employees. It’s had a remarkable effect: increasing management performance about twice as much for managers who participated in our program compared to a control group of similar managers. 

We’re excited to launch a series of articles that will, for the first time, share our lessons and show how managers can apply so-called soft skills to hard problems. But for soft skills training to transform organizations, these three things need to happen.

Beyond Inspiration: Building Habits Of Mind And Heart

Most corporate trainings on empathy, trust, and related skills occur in short bursts, such as standalone two-hour workshops. These sessions often leave participants inspired, but without anywhere for that inspiration to go, or any resources through which to build on it. Like a flower planted in the desert, the ideas from these sessions are unable to grow. “Hard skills,” such as coding, would never be taught this way. It’s not just the classes, but the individual practice students complete, that lets them learn.

As such, each session of our workshops was accompanied by a set of concrete missions—for instance, more active listening—managers were expected to practice regularly, in real conditions, over a period of weeks. They were given materials that clearly laid out each practice, and ways to document their progress. The idea was to turn moments of inspiration into habits of mind.

Growth As A Team Sport: Accountability And Practice Groups

Hard skills are often trained not just among individuals, but through group practice. We applied a similar framework to learning soft skills. Managers in our program were assigned to “practice groups,” mini-cohorts of about five members. Practice groups met at least once a week to discuss the skills they were working on, successes and challenges they’d faced, and plans for overcoming those challenges. Each month, practice groups presented on their progress to the larger cohort.

These teams supercharged individuals’ progress. Practice group members learned from each other, comparing notes and picking up new ways of delivering on the skills we trained. They built community and camaraderie—vital qualities for any training on human connection. And their meetings created moments of accountability, encouraging individuals to practice their own skills so they would have something to discuss with their group.

Support From Leadership

A program like ours requires time, energy, resources, and deep support from the ecosystem. The SAP Academy’s leadership provided the first three, while senior SAP leaders across the world offered the last. Managing directors of labs in India, China, Brazil, Canada, and the United States, which together make up the largest labs and some of the most strategic locations outside Germany, lent their voice and support to the program. They actively encouraged managers in their location to apply, directed members of their core team to the program and even showed up in the popular “Hot Seat” sessions, to candidly share their own managerial challenges.

The Academy’s head, Ferose V.R., opens the program for each cohort, drops in on several sessions, and checks in on students’ progress. Rana Chakrabarti, director of learning experiences and Annie Hayward, responsible for program operations worked closely with the faculty to build in action-based learning experiences emphasizing practice, reflection, and measurement. Students know they can come to Academy leadership and course faculty for support whenever they need it. And most of all, the Academy clears time for students to focus on what they’re learning.

This level of buy in is rare in soft skills training; that’s part of why such programs rarely produce long-term effects. We hope our collaboration can provide a vision of what sustained, well supported training in human connection can look like. Because after all, truly empowering leaders to learn soft skills takes a lot of hard work.

This article was originally published in Fast Company.