Leadership and Soft Skills: Development Myths Exposed!

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Leadership and Soft Skills

Leadership Development Myths

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

In a previous article, we delved into the issues individuals and organizations had in developing what we called ‘soft skills’, also called leadership and business skills.  Although organizations that effectively transferred learning experiences into changed behaviors saw substantial benefits, most training resulted in little consistent success. Many myths have developed about training because of these poor results. This article will address these myths in order to suggest how more effective training programs can be developed.

 Many of the objections to training and development frequently mentioned are anecdotal rather than actual development issues.  These objections are ‘commonly accepted’, so they can’t be simply ignored or swept aside. Instead, each of them should be addressed individually and exposed based on employer experience as well as established research.

It’s easier to hire someone who already has the skills than train an existing employee: The goal of many employers is to find the perfect candidate with the complete package. Unfortunately, the reality is that such candidates are few and far between so hiring the perfect person is not a realistic solution. In addition, this objection underestimates the value of the institutional knowledge carried by existing employees, as well as the costs in getting a new hire up to speed. Finally, there are distinct benefits to training someone with skills gaps but who has fewer bad habits to unlearn and who will be more committed to the company for investing in their development from the start.

Training personnel is expensive: There are expenses associated with employee development. However, hiring an optimal, fully qualified person over the one with some skills or competency gaps will result in a costlier hire. In addition, the fully qualified individual may need to unlearn old habits before being fully functional in the new role. This myth also ignores the benefits of investing in employee development, especially in terms of increased employee engagement and retention, which ultimately impacts the bottom line.  The late Derek Bok stated “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”.

We’ll fall behind while people are out being trained: This is a red herring with respect to new hires, since the workload is being managed without them now. However, having a department or the entire management team involved in lengthy training commitments can be challenging. This is where it makes sense to examine shorter bursts of learning and leverage technologies that support asynchronous learning, such as eLearning modules and technology enabled platforms and smart phone apps that support individual learning.

Employees will leverage training and development to get a better job elsewhere: Another myth to dispel is that training and development expenses are wasted because employees will seek better jobs with other companies. This myth is so persistent that it became a staple HR joke: One manager asks, “What if we train them and they leave?” The second manager replies, “What if we don’t, and they stay?” The reality is that workplace training and opportunities for education are top contributors to employee engagement, and high performing employees prefer to work for a learning organization. Providing training is one of the most important ways for organizations to keep employees invested in their company. On occasion, some employee will use your training as a springboard when there is no clear path for advancement within your organization. When you decide to invest in developing your employees, make sure internal opportunities for growth are made clear so their focus and loyalty remain with you.

Leadership and Soft Skills

Will they quit if I train them?

Employees dislike training: Again, a widely held myth is that employees dislike training.  However, empirical evidence shows that workplace training and educational opportunities are highly valued.  Perhaps what employees really hate is bad training: training that wastes their time, does not help them do their jobs better, is poorly written or badly delivered. Students prefer good training material that incorporates sound adult learning principles with relevant content in a variety of formats to address various learning styles.

Training doesn’t work – employees don’t change behavior after the event: This is the most stubborn myth to dispel as most development efforts fail to achieve the expected change in behavior. But, this conclusion begs the question by assuming that the training was designed properly. What if the format of the training itself is the issue?

Time.Com recently published an article called “The Real Reason New College Grads Can’t Get Hired’ that identified the lack of soft skills as the leading factor in the (un)employability of new graduates.  This work triggered another study that examined soft skills development for graduating students found that the highest ranked learning methods for leadership and soft skills for students entering the workforce were:

  • Experiential Learning
    Leadership and Soft Skills

    Graduates Need Soft Skills

  • Role Playing and Demonstration
  • Team working methods
  • Case Studies/Problem Solving
  • Extra-Curricular Activities

This list is notable for what it doesn’t contain: nowhere on this list are lecture-driven instructor-led training sessions or rote eLearning content. Yet, those two techniques are the dominant methods for delivering soft skill training. Is it any wonder that training fails to demonstrate real results when it is delivered via ineffective methods?


If the objective of leadership and soft skills training is to produce behavioral change, most organizations would agree that their training efforts have fallen short of expectations.  The myths that have been used in the past (and exposed in this article) as an explanation for the low success ignore the reality that perhaps the approach to soft skills training is what has failed.  In the third and final installment in this series, we will examine how adults acquire and process new concepts. In addition, we will examine the different ways that content can be presented to improve the effectiveness of training efforts.

The payoff for leadership training that actually changes 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.


“Don’t Hire the Perfect Candidate”, Lance Haun, Harvard Business Review, January 14, 2013

“The Case for Hiring ‘Under-Qualified’ Employees”, David K. Williams, Forbes Magazine, June 3, 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

“More on the Soft Skills Deficiencies of College Graduates”, Dr. Roderick Nunn, Workforce Solutions Group, November 22, 2013

“Developing Soft Skills in Students”, Meenu Wats and Rakesh Kumar Wats, The Learner Collection


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