Training executives in so-called ‘soft skills’ can be hard. Here’s how to do it

This article was originally published in Fast Company.

Even over a videoconference platform, the groups’ nervousness was palpable. Some two dozen Brazilian engineers were about to engage in a session with me, Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford Univeristy, to help address a work issue. I informed them that they would be placed into breakout rooms, where they’d open up to a colleague about those struggles, and listen to their partner do the same. They expressed anxiety how they expected the conversation to go: How awkward would it be? How fun? How meaningful? One by one, they disappeared into their break rooms.

Ten minutes later, they returned, their energy fundamentally different. They seemed loose and relaxed. I polled the group about their expectations versus reality. They thought these conversations would be awkward and unhelpful, and were shocked at how enlivening, warm, and useful the real chat was.

They’re not alone. Dozens of studies find that people underestimate how positive it will be to have open, vulnerable conversations. Sadly, this means they avoid those connections, and lose out on the benefits they bring. After going over the data, we reflected on how they could use their new insights, and I assigned them the “homework” of hosting a deep conversation with their team in the week to come.

This was the emblematic of content I created for SAP Academy of Engineering’s new leadership program. I am a professor of psychology at Stanford University, and I worked with Ferose V.R, senior vice president and head of the SAP academy, and Mentora’s Hitendra Wadhwa, coauthors of this piece. Our overall philosophy (described in more detail in the first article of this series) is that soft skills are not “soft” at all, and should be trained with the same intensity and focus as hard skills like coding.

My sessions with these rising leaders focused on three central themes: vulnerability, empathy, and trust. In teaching each of these principles, I focused on two core themes drawn from theory in learning and pedagogy.

Experiences first, then principles. In mathematics and programming, it’s crucial to not merely learn an idea abstractly, but also to experience working with it. An instructor can explain what a “for” loop does, but it won’t come alive to students until they use it themselves. We don’t have intuitions for programming languages, so we must build them over time.

Many of the psychological principles are even harder to teach. This is because we do have intuitions about our own mind; it’s just that they’re often backwards. Leaders might think vulnerability and empathy are weaknesses when the data clearly show that they’re strengths, or imagine that pitting their employees against each other will drive them when in fact, toxic competition builds cynicism and stifles innovation. Coding requires learning new ways of seeing the world. Psychological growth requires unlearning old ways of seeing it.

In building trainings for SAP, I reasoned that managers might balk when hearing principles that clashed with their old beliefs. So, I reversed the classic engineering approach: having them first experience the power of soft skills. They felt what it was like to have someone listen deeply to them and practiced asking for favors from the group. They learned firsthand how useful vulnerability, empathy, and trust can be.

After that experiential learning, I didn’t have to convince them of anything. But I could show them why it mattered. Each exercise was followed by a review of hard-boiled evidence from the social sciences demonstrating how the skill managers had just practiced helps organizations and teams thrive. That cadence—experience, then principle—allowed them to learn from the inside out.

Practice often, and together. Hard skills are learned in class, but truly built over lonely hours completing problems sets and endlessly debugging code. Soft skills take at least as much practice. To facilitate this, managers in SAP’s program were expected to take the principles they learned with me to their teams, immediately and regularly.

In between sessions, they were given specific missions: for instance, to hold a “check in meeting” with one of their people, applying principles of compassionate feedback. To support this, I created a program called “the empathy gym.” Managers had access to a short “micro-talk” that refreshed the core principle we discussed in our trainings. They were also asked to complete a worksheet based on the powerful principle of “implementation intentions.” For instance, prior to having a check in, they would make specific plans about how they would express empathy in their feedback, and then use another form to reflect on how the conversation went.

Everyone is busy, and learning new skills can easily fall by the wayside next to more short-term needs. As such, managers in our program were held accountable. Rana Chakrabarti, Director of Learning Experiences and Annie Miu Hayward, Operations Lead created the conditions and constraints to build managerial muscle memory. Practice groups of five were created before the start of the program, ensuring diversity in gender, function, and location. The groups were required to meet every week. After each session, the slides, recording, and additional assets were made available on a shared program guide, along with the week’s mission.

Each week, every manager posted to a shared communications channel, reflecting on how they had practiced the core soft skill, and these were integrated into the reflection at the start of the next session. Every four weeks, practice teams were given one week to catch up on missions and prepare a presentation reflecting on their experiences of the past weeks, and share it with the entire cohort. The more senior managers were invited to a monthly “hot seat,” where they candidly shared their experiences of dealing with situations involving high stakes and no easy answers.

Apart from multiple pathways reinforcing their learning, just knowing that they would be on the spot, managers were far more likely to practice their skills. But the accountability systems did something deeper as well: they made learning social. Managers formed communities of practice that allowed them to learn not only from me, but from each other. Those social circles also allowed soft skills to reverberate through their work teams and cultures.

The program improved managers’ Net Promotor Scores, about twice as much as managers in a control group. The members of our cohort succeeded in building soft skills, not through any magic trick, but in the same way someone might improve at math, chess, or soccer: by doing the work, steadily and together.

This article was originally published in Fast Company.