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Schoolish or not: make your soft skills training program mandatory

Should you make a training program mandatory? As project manager, I regularly chat with clients to help them implement an online soft skills program. In the first meeting about training implementation, I usually start talking about making the program mandatory. This is often seen as an obvious thing to do, but sometimes it meets with resistance. “We just can’t do that”, one of them says. “We find that very schoolish”, a colleague adds. If you really want your soft skills training program to have an impact though, you should make it mandatory!

mandatory training programThe fact that ‘schoolish’ is almost never used in a positive way (important, informative, an investment) but often in a negative way (pedantic, boring, strict) may a sign that the educational system is slightly disregarded. The goal of a soft skills training program is however almost always for participants to learn and put the acquired skills into practice. What do you need for this? High participation (if they don’t practice, they won’t learn) and a high rating (suggesting that participants appreciate the acquired skills and will use them in practice). How does obligation fit into this?

Mandatory to stimulate participation

“No, I expect our employees to have enough intrinsic motivation to get cracking with this.” As we discussed in earlier articles however, the whole ‘intrinsic motivation is the only good motivation’ story is often far from reality. Obligation is the textbook example of extrinsic motivation. In our own projects within organizations, sometimes only 5% of participants finishes a non-mandatory training program. And no, the other 95% aren’t demotivated, lazy participants. They are students for example, following a voluntary application interview training program: they are motivated, willing to learn and certainly have a fear of lacking the skills. There’s no shortage of intrinsic motivation, but there is a shortage of finishers. Even my colleagues and I ran into this problem when we started following some of our own training programs. There will always be other priorities where extrinsic motivation does play its part. But if you make the program mandatory, it will instantly climb the priority list.

Little school kids

People’s expectations when hearing the word “schoolish”, is that a mandatory program will make grown-up professionals react like little school kids. What was mandatory for the majority of your youth? Indeed, school. While as a kid, you just wanted to play outside. So it could actually be a sensible conclusion: once you make your online soft skills program mandatory, your participants will resist it.

Extrinsic motivation

Fortunately though, grown-ups are not kids. Your participants are, one would hope, used to extrinsic motivation being an important factor by now. Completing a study, working at a company or on your own, those are all personal choices where extrinsic motivation (salary, status, etc.) plays an important part. The bad taste that the term ‘extrinsic motivation’ might leave in your mouth, is not justified. You chose to start the study or job yourself, so you can be expected to develop yourself.

Mandatory to stimulate participant appreciation

Usually we see that participants are much less reluctant than the client expected. Mandatory training programs even boast a higher participant satisfaction rate than their non-mandatory counterparts. Strange? I don’t think so. When a program isn’t mandatory, you’ll start wondering whether you should train or not, when, where, why and so on. People don’t like too many choices. A project where participants could not just choose if they wanted to join, but also with which training theme and which coach, showed both low participation and low ratings. There were simply too many choices to make.

Mandatory is schoolish?

When the question “am I going to do this” doesn’t even have to be addressed anymore (because it’s mandatory anyway), we notice that participant reviews are generally much more positive. This in its turn means they are more prone to use the acquired skills in practice. I agree with the hesitating clients. Mandatory is schoolish. Oh, in the good sense of the word of course. A way to stimulate participation and satisfaction, which makes your participants acquire new skills and become motivated to put them into practice. Lifelong learning!

NS is an example of a company with mandatory training. Read their experiences in the casestudy below!

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Professional communication is an art. We want to help people reach an unexpected level of competence and as a result become more comfortable, happy, effective and successful in all possible areas of professional communication. We support organisations that train their employees in this. Here you can read our insights. You'll find updates on our platform in the Product Blog.