A Fresh Approach to More Effective Leadership/Soft Skills Development

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By C. Thomas Smith and Dr. Colin J. Hahn

In a previous article, we delved into the issues individuals and organizations had for what we called ‘soft skills’, or leadership and soft skills development (also called business skills).  Although organizations that effectively transferred learning experiences into changed behaviors saw substantial benefits, most training resulted in little consistent success. We explored the common soft skills training myths in a second article and dispelled them but uncovered a larger concern: are we using the right approaches to effectively develop leadership and business soft skills?  This article will explore adult learning principles and examine how to combine and layer different learning modalities to be more successful in transferring knowledge and changing behavior for leadership and business soft skills training.

Adult Learning Principles

If you want to make development more effective, first and foremost, don’t offer bad training (see our last article). Secondly, you may want to make sure that the content takes into consideration an Adult Learning model.  Malcolm Knowles was a pioneer in the field of Adult Learning and pioneered a model that outlined six principles of adult learning.  These principles are outlined below along with the impact of contemporary learning techniques on that principle.

  1. Adult learners are internally motivated and self-directed: Unfortunately, many of the business soft skills development needs of individuals are not intuitively obvious. As a result, making eLearning content available 24×7 will not alone provide the motivation and self-direction to learn a new skill. Justification has to be provided to the employee if they are to be internally motivated and self-directed. In addition, adult learners are not solely defined by their role as a student. It is common for an adult to have other roles in their life, and those roles at times, may take precedence over their part time identities as students.
  2. Adult learners bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences: One of the luxuries of teaching adult learners is their life experience may provide context for them and provide logical explanations for past experience and/or education.  This leads to the ‘aha’ moment many people experience in a learning event. However, past experiences may also complicate learning insofar as adult students may misapply concepts to their previous experiences, or even become resistant to change because their past habits worked ‘well enough.’
  3. Adult learners are goal oriented: Studies have shown that meaningful learning experiences linked to personal or professional goals are extremely effective. Adult learners are typically eager to acquire new information that is relevant and directly beneficial to their professional lives.
  4. Adult learners are relevancy oriented: If the content that is being taught has a direct impact on the daily activities of an individual, it will be embraced. By contrast, content that does not have an obvious relevance to daily work duties is less compelling. Typically, adults learn from a performance-oriented or problem-oriented mind-set. They want information that they can immediately apply to their life tasks and professional performance, in addition to wanting information that they can use to solve problems.
  5. Adult learners are practical: Once the need for skills development becomes apparent, adult learners will find ways to obtain the desired skills through classroom, web based and textbook learning. Designing a curriculum for adult learners that makes explicitly clear the reason, purpose, and usefulness of the subject matter is a necessary component of effectively reaching adult learners.
  6. Adult learners like to be respected: Students have their own experiences and may have a different context that will add a depth to the learning experience. Adult learners juggle multiple responsibilities, and take ownership of their education, with the goal of improving their knowledge base and career opportunities.

What do these principles look like in practice? To make training stick with adult audiences, instructors have adopted the following ‘best practices’:

  • Make development relevant and directly related to work activities and challenges
  • Provide context (why are we doing this and how does it fit into the bigger picture?)
  • Respect the experience that employees bring to the table
  • Use shorter, more frequent training sessions focused on relevant skills
  • Get people talking so they engage with the material
  • Have participants apply what they’ve learned during and between sessions
  • Evoke emotion in participants to increase salience

Active Training: The New Trend in Instruction

For years, instructors have felt that simply talking at students was an ineffective way to develop knowledge and skills. Beginning in the 1960s, education circles started capturing this intuition with the proverb, “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” But what does the data show?

Over the last twenty years, cognitive research has helped explain how learning happens. What we have learned is that the human brain is surprisingly bad at learning facts. Eric Jensen, author of Brain-Based Learning, summarizes: “The traditional stand and deliver approach is brain antagonistic. The brain is not very good at absorbing countless bits of semantic (factual) information.”

Instead, the human brain needs to engage with material. In Active Training, Mel Silberman identifies several methods to improve learning outcomes:

  • Ask students to state information in their own words
  • Give examples
  • Make connections between new information and other facts or ideas
  • Apply new knowledge to case situations

There are two major benefits to using active training methods. The first is that active training methods limit the ability of students to sit back and watch when training occurs. Engaging students and making them interact with the material forces them to hold on to new knowledge for at least a few minutes. Instead of ideas going “in one ear, out the other,” students are pushed to internalize the content.

Second, active training methods enable students to apply their knowledge in new situations. Changing behaviors is not a matter of memorization or regurgitating facts. To use a new skill, students need to recognize the opportunity to apply the skill, remember the core elements of the skill, determine how to adapt the skill to the new context, and execute the skill in the new situation. If a student has just learned a concept in isolation, each of these tasks is a nearly insurmountable challenge. By contrast, if the student has practiced restating the idea in their own words, identifying examples, drawing parallels, or applying concepts in novel situations, the barrier to transferring the skill is substantially lower.

The value of active learning techniques is supported by an increasing collection of research, case studies, and individual experiences. The challenge is that active training is much more difficult to design and deliver than a lecture, so many training programs do not implement active training techniques—or do so only perfunctorily. Yet, for organizations that are committed to delivering results in their training, the need for active learning experiences is clear.

Spaced Repetition: The Missing Link to Leadership/Soft Skills Learning Success?

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between the introduction and subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect for adult learning. Spaced repetition is commonly applied in contexts in which a learner must acquire a large number of items and retain them indefinitely in memory, such as learning vocabulary for a foreign language.

Piotr Wozniak realized that he could predict when learners would forget concepts and facts previously learned. The deterioration in memory was exponential at first and then would level out over time. However, if a concept was introduced and then reinforced in lengthening intervals, the adult learner would retain more for a longer period of time. He conducted some studies and created a computer model called SuperMemo to simulate when you would most likely forget a concept. This projected forgetting curve is represented in the graphic below:

Spaced Repetition

The Forgetting Curve

Although an element of spaced repetition was present through the golden rule of instructional design (tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them), there were only two chances at best where a concept was reviewed after being introduced. But, adding spaced repetition to in-person classroom learning quickly becomes unwieldy. Adding training that would include separate review sessions one day and/or one week later would be difficult to schedule and administer unless a suitable technology platform could be developed specifically for this purpose. Fortunately, we discovered the Minneapolis-based company SkillFitness, which has a platform that is ideal for creating personalized spaced repetition for students.

The projected forgetting curve is helpful in explaining why leadership training often fails to change behaviors. Leadership and soft skills are largely situational skills that are used when the proper opportunity presents itself. When the opportunity to use a skill is infrequent, the student is likely to forget the skill before it can be practiced. Even if the student finds an opportunity to apply the skill immediately after the training, the student’s behavior can revert back if the new skill is not reinforced at the appropriate intervals.

It was apparent that combining different learning approaches would be more effective to change behavior as part of a training program. These approaches include:

  1. Following Adult Learning Concepts
  2. Using experiential training exercises that add “saying” and “doing” to existing training programs
  3. Incorporating technology platforms that use spaced repetition concepts including asynchronous interactive learning and one on one coaching This solution would present a powerful combination of learning processes are presented to the student, all leading to improved knowledge transfer.


If your objective is to provide effective training as measured by knowledge transfer changing behavior when it comes to leadership/soft skills, understanding how adults acquire and process new concepts is important. In practical terms, this means that the development of your training programs needs to build multiple modes of information presentation into the content of the program and allow for different ways of processing that information as the training is delivered.  In addition, the spacing of the content delivery will help to reinforce concepts for situational skills, increasing the likelihood that those skills can be used when the proper opportunity arises.

The payoff for making leadership/soft skills training change behavior is substantial. Your employees will benefit from the excellent educational opportunities they crave and your company will be rewarded with a more highly skilled, more engaged workforce and improved financial performance.


Active Training: A Handbook of Techniques, Designs, Case Examples, and Tips, third edition, Mel Silberman, 2006.

Brain-Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching, second edition, Eric Jensen, 2008.

“The Case for Hiring ‘Under-Qualified’ Employees”, David K. Williams, Forbes Magazine, June 13, 2012

“Employee Engagement:  Your Key to Bottom Line Profitability”, Joyce L. Gioia, Industry Week, February 24, 2012

“Training Programs Improve Employee Retention”, Dennis McCafferty, CIO Insight, July 26, 2013 

Why People Hate Training, and How to Overcome It”, David Kelly, Mindflash, March 6, 2012  

“Providing Context In A Changing Workplace”, Stephanie Reyes, Workplace Tribes Blog, September 16, 2013 

“People Remember What They Feel”, Stephanie Reyes, Workplace Tribes Blog, December 31, 2013


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