Learning Soft Skills in the Age of Digital Coaching

We called him the general. He had never been a military man, but with such authority and presence, it was easy to imagine him leading troops into battle. A physically imposing man, with a perpetual scowl and a temper to match. He engaged with employees like a drill sergeant whipping new recruits into shape. No time to pause and think. No time for questions. One word out of place, and you’d be confined to barracks for a week.

Okay, I made that last part up, but the rest is pretty accurate. We called him the general out of fear. It was also uttered behind his back with barely concealed mockery. As a manager, he was simply unbearable.

Ask a question, or disagree with him, and you’d be asking for trouble. Communication with the general was a one-way street, and good luck to anyone foolish enough to go against the traffic. No wonder staff turnover was as high as morale was low.

Can an old dog learn new tricks?

One day I walked into his office to show him some mock-ups I had done for a new project. He looked at me and asked, “What would you suggest?”

Once the shock wore off, I replied. We had our first real conversation. The walls were down and we could communicate person to person. As a result, I felt confident enough to give my all to the project, instead of what I thought the general wanted to hear.

As much as the incident was a change in my relationship with my manager, it was even more of a turning point in my job. Work became a place I wanted to be, and I owned that space. Years later I still remember it (at least that part of it) as one of my favorite jobs.

The problem with being unapproachable

Studies have shown that having an unapproachable leadership style fails to cut it in today’s corporate world. How can a leader bring out the best in people when they rule from a distance? This means making human connections, not just moving resources around on a spreadsheet.

People who feel included and valued at work also feel more confident, and generally contribute more. Unsurprisingly, one of the main reasons leaders fail is due to the inability to establish and maintain good relationships with employees.

Ruling from behind a wall may impart a sense of power, but you can be sure it doesn’t feel that way for those on the other side. This style of leadership has been shown to discourage engagement, and the effects can be devastating.

Changing behaviors

So how does a leader become more approachable? Studies have shown that even with extensive mentoring, getting behavior change to stick is difficult. Put a person through a behavior change course, and they’re likely to lapse back into their old habits soon enough.

The challenge of teaching soft skills is that you’re not teaching a person a body of knowledge, nor are you teaching them to perform a set task. You are literally trying to make them change their ways. This means undoing behaviors that have formed over years, and replacing them with others.

The most successful soft skills coaching programs have been ones that enforced a strict practice regimen over an extended period. Expensive and impractical, and beyond the reach of most people. So what to do?

Digital coaching – providing the human touch?

Early attempts at elearning coaching simulations were clumsy and left users feeling as though they were talking to an ancient computer. Such unconvincing simulations are ineffective, and any skills learned are so far from the real thing as to be almost entirely useless.

Leap forward more than a decade. With the dominance of communication platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, the virtual conversation feels almost as natural as speaking face to face. Welcome to the era of digital coaching!

With improved technology and learning design, industry leaders have been able to turn digital coaching into a force to drive effective behavior change.

Increased user interaction and powerful questions means that automated coaching programs can marry effective online coaching to a user’s personal context. And this in a way that feels like a natural conversation. Fantastic news for managers – and indeed, entire organizations – keen on developing their skills and making real-world learning and performance gains.

By leveraging emotional connections, digital coaching can provide ‘aha’ moments of realization, and it’s convenient and cost-effective enough to serve users for the long term. We’re entering a golden age of learning, where technology is finally catching up with ground-breaking learning theory and activating behavior change.

In the words of Barry Kayton, co-founder and CEO of Cognician: “You can’t create the workforce of the future, using the ed tech of the past.”