You want your employees to become more effective and emotionally intelligent communicators, savvier negotiators, more compassionate and effective deliverers of bad news, better coaches, and more sophisticated cross-cultural communicators. So you offer them interpersonal skills training. It’s a packaged solution that can pay great dividends for your business. Right?
Well, not so fast. Skills training is a huge industry, but also one with an equally huge failure rate. Companies spend billions of dollars annually helping their employees develop all sorts of interpersonal skills with questionable return on their investment. And the big question is, why? Why does training seem like such an obvious solution to a real problem when it doesn’t prove fruitful much of the time?
One answer is that training is often structured or run poorly, and that the people receiving the training simply don’t care about learning. That certainly could be true, but I’d also like to advance another reason: The care and attention we put into creating psychologically safe settings for our trainees can paradoxically limit their abilities to transfer these new skills into the real world.
Think about it: In a safe training setting, people can freely experiment with behavior, often without the pressure and negative stakes of a mistake or misstep. They often receive immediate, supportive feedback and are applauded in their efforts to learn. In “real world” settings, on the other hand, the atmosphere isn’t as forgiving. People don’t necessarily have the same level of patience or forgiveness as they do in a training environment. The stakes are also typically higher: In a training setting it’s about learning, whereas in most performance settings, it’s about delivering results. In situations such as these, individuals suddenly find themselves uncomfortable and anxious. In an attempt to alleviate their stress, they forget what they learned in training and fall back on their previously established habits in their comfort zone. In essence, they don’t know how to adapt their comfort zone to react to the situation while also applying the new skills they learned in training.
To help your employees benefit from training, without handicapping their ability to succeed in real-world settings, start by taking a careful inventory of your current training programs. In many of our training programs, there is often a significant gap between the rhetoric for what we hope to achieve and the reality of what we can possibly achieve given what we provide employees during the training.
Take the case of a layoff. Imagine your goal is to provide training to help line managers execute a round of layoffs with dignity and compassion. Would it be enough to hand them a script for what to say and then let them go do it? Perhaps in some cases, but most likely not. The experience of performing a layoff can be emotionally challenging, and without a realistic preview of these challenges and opportunities to learn how to manage them, many managers will ultimately fail.
In my work on cultural adaptation, I’ve found that people often underestimate the emotional challenges they experience when they have to switch cultural behavior and act outside of their cultural comfort zones. And as a result, they can struggle to adapt successfully. Similarly, in my work on performing layoffs and delivering bad news, I have also found people can be similarly naïve about the power of in-the-moment emotional reactions, and misreading these emotional challenges can similarly doom them to failure.
To provide a realistic preview of the emotional dynamics of actual situations, give employees information about the likely emotions that they will experience transitioning from the safe to the less-safe and more consequential performance environment. In the layoff case in particular, it’s also important to provide employees with the likely emotional reactions of victims, because that will add an additional layer of complexity to their capacity to handle the dynamics of an actual situation.
Organizations can also offer role-plays and simulations — ideally ones that mimic the level of challenge people will ultimately face in a performance environment. Finally, in certain cases, organizations can train people in actual situations, either as a bystander (being in the room while someone else performs the task) or as performers themselves of similar, but less challenging versions of their ultimate target performance situation. So, if a difficult round of layoffs is the target, a manager might work first on delivering challenging performance reviews, which to some extent mimic the dynamics of delivering bad news in a layoff setting. Of course, these situations are different from the ultimate target situation, so debriefs of the situation should also emphasize these differences.
To truly hone the skills of your employees, you need to offer them opportunities to step out of their comfort zones and learn to perform under pressure. It may add another layer to training programs, but in the end, the payoff will be worth it.
Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017). Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.
Originally published at Harvard Business Review.