Why Haven’t Training Events Been More Effective At Changing Behavior and Delivering Results for Leadership and Business Soft Skills?

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In my last business, I dedicated myself to helping people learn computer and IT skills. I was confident that my organization did the best job of teaching our students content that they could immediately apply on the job.  Based on the standardized evaluations that our students submitted after the classes, we patted ourselves on the back for attaining high evaluation scores for our classes, instructors and our content. The worldwide organization that I was a part of grew to dominate the IT training market.

Our organization was always looking  additional uses for our bricks and mortar locations and found that the second largest market for adult training (behind IT Training) was ‘Leadership & Business Soft Skills’.  Our worldwide organization had little experience with this market which was served by tens of thousands of small organizations with either a niche service or a long standing relationship with a customer.  But, we learned that content was available through the same content providers we had used for IT training.  Based on the ‘opportunity’ to use our existing footprint and resources to serve another market channel, we began to offer leadership and business soft skills training.

We entered the market after investing heavily in website presence, staffing and additional instructional development and encountered two significant barriers to entry.  First was that the decision makers for this market were more HR oriented than IT oriented and we had to introduce ourselves to a new, different group of decision makers.  The second was the nature of the training itself – we had been successful at IT training but had failed to understand that leadership & business soft skills training was totally different from IT training.

Although we conducted many successful soft skills classes (using both live instructor-led and virtual instructor-led sessions), we seldom got repeat business in spite of the high evaluation scores for the instructor and the class. At the time, we questioned everything about our customer experience including:

  • Was the content too dated?
  • Were the examples poorly chosen?
  • Did the instructor lack real-world experience?
  • Were there not enough role plays in class?
  • Was the virtual class format ineffective?

In spite of our best efforts, we couldn’t find the right solution to improve these classes.  When I left the IT training industry, I continued my own research to see if there was a better way to do leadership and business skills training.

Evaluating Training Programs – The Kirkpatrick Model

Donald Kirkpatrick, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin and the past president of ASTD (the American Society for Training and Development), first published his Four-Level Training Evaluation Model in 1959, in the US Training and Development Journal.  The model was last updated in 1994, when he published his best-known work, “Evaluating Training Programs.”  The four levels identified by Kirkpatrick are:

Level 1: Reaction

Level 2: Learning

Level 3: Behavior

Level 4: Results

Achieving all four levels is difficult.  Training efforts that excelled in the first two levels may fail to change behavior or achieve expected results. In a 2000 article in Performance Improvement Quarterly, Twitchell, Holton, and Trott performed an analysis of empirical data from training conducted for the last 40 years. Their research indicates the following ranges of success using Kirkpatrick’s four levels:

Level 1: Reaction 86-100%

Level 2: Learning 71-90%

Level 3: Behavior 43-83%

Level 4: Results 21-49%

In other words, even training that is extremely effective at the levels of reaction and learning can struggle to produce behavior changes and positive results. The low percentage rates for changing behavior and achieving results caught my attention immediately and I recognized that my IT training organization had only considered the first two Levels (of Reaction and Learning) but never bothered to followup up on behavioral change or actual results, other than anecdotal feedback from the manager who paid for the training.

Hard Skills and Soft Skills – Differences Noted  

Part of the research that I conducted looked at whether the nature of the subject matter for training had an effect on the training results. I knew from my previous experience that IT training could be deemed effective when addressing only two of Kirkpatrick’s four levels of training success, but it seemed like Leadership and Business skills could not. In my study, I discovered that research has captured a difference between “hard skills” like IT technical training and “soft skills” such as leadership and business skills.

One of the studies that helped me understand the difference was conducted by Dennis R. Laker and Jimmy L. Powell titled “The Differences Between Hard and Soft Skills and Their Relative Impact on Training Transfer”. Laker and Powell note that “anecdotal evidence has emphasized that soft-skills training is significantly less likely to transfer from training to the job than hard-skills training.”  They go on to conclude, “(the) focus on soft skills may be warranted by the specific difficulty in transferring soft skills (intrapersonal and interpersonal) rather than hard skills (technical). This lack of soft-skill transfer results in an extremely costly waste of time, energy, and money.” In short, soft skills are much more difficult to transfer, and that inefficiency is expensive.

The research conducted by Laker and Powell was not a ringing endorsement for the success of soft skill development.  And they weren’t the only skeptics. Fitzpatrick and Thalheimer conducted an empirical study to find out why training fails to transfer.  Their data pointed to a 62% success rate for training transferring from the learning environment to the job.  However, it also meant that 38% failed to transfer.

According to a followup study by Donald Clark, there are several reasons why 38% of training fails to initially transfer. The most important reason is that some so-called training programs are, according to Clark, “not really training, but rather more development or educational in nature.” Clark explains the difference between developmental/educational programs and training, stating that training is performed to show an immediate improvement in job performance and should show a high transfer rate.  By contrast, developmental and educational programs are conducted to grow a learner over a period of time, leading to low transfer rates than experienced with training.  It appears as though Clark rationalizes the 38% failed transfer rate as par for the course; he believes that soft skills “training” should not be expected to result in rapid behavioral changes.

Value of Leadership and Soft Skills Training

Despite the challenges of soft skill development, leadership training remains an important part of the professional world. In fact, effective soft skills’ training has become the ‘Holy Grail’ of adult professional development.

James Heckman and Tim Kautz argue that technical skills, cognitive ability and IQ frequently are overemphasized with respect to organizational performance. They go on to state “Achievement tests miss, or perhaps more accurately, do not adequately capture, soft skills—personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains. …soft skills predict success in life, that they causally produce that success, and that programs that enhance soft skills have an important place in an effective (development) portfolio.” If anything, soft skill development is undervalued relative to technical skills.

The claim that soft skill development should be valued more highly is supported by research from Laurie Bassi, who measured how well employees are trained and developed (Delahoussaye, et al., 2002). She writes that organizations that make large investments in people typically have lower employee turnover, which is associated with higher customer satisfaction, which in turn is a driver of profitability.  A second driver is manager proficiency (i.e., good leadership skills) — good managers determine if people stay or go, and the quality of managers is influenced by soft skills training and leadership development. She further writes that the leadership development variable is the most significant predictor of an organization’s success as compared to PE ratios, capital pricing models and measures of risk and volatility.

Bassi put her theories to the test — she and a fellow partner launched an investment firm that bought stocks in companies that invested heavily in employee development. It returned 24 percent a year over a two year period, topping the S&P by four percentage points over the same time frame.

This research explains why effective leadership development and soft skills training have become the Holy Grail for talent managers and Human Resource executives. Despite the difficulties in finding successful leadership development training, organizations continue to look for solutions to change behavior because the benefits of successful training are so powerful.

Because of the importance of soft skill development, I wasn’t satisfied with the answer that soft skills “training” is destined to low transfer rates and long time horizons. I kept searching for a better way to conduct leadership and business skills training. In the next article, I’ll review and debunk the myths of soft skills training and leadership development.


There is a tremendous value in developing leadership and soft skills for an organization’s team members.  The lack of success has discouraged many organizations from pursuing a formal program, concerned about effectiveness of the effort and the cost of the endeavor.  However, as Bassi points out, the benefits to organizations are substantial both in terms of market valuation as well as performance and profitability. As a result, organizations continue to seek a better training solution. The next article will outline one such solution for leadership development.

Soft Skills

Soft Skills

“Maximizing Your Return on People”, Laurie Bassi & Daniel McMurrer, Harvard Business Review, March 2007


“Hard Evidence on Soft Skills”, James J. Heckman& Tim D. Kautz, National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2012


“Learning and Training:  Statistics and Myths”, Donald Clark, Performance Juxtaposition September 21, 1996


“The differences between hard and soft skills and their relative impact on training transfer”, Dennis R. Laker and Jimmy L. Powell, Human Resource Development Quarterly, Spring 2011




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  1. Bill  May 22, 2015

    Thanks Tom for the detailed overview. I sometimes feel that with the Kirkpatrick model there needs to be a level 2.5. One that adds the element of practice to re-enforce the learning to drive knowledge retention and drive real behavioral change. Nice update, Tom!


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