This week my two colleagues and I began delivering a “soft skills” class to employees of the federal agency supervisors we’ve been working with for the past two years.  The class is a shorter version of what we deliver to the supervisors, and it focuses on communication skills, conflict management approaches, teamwork and diversity.

Predictably, and within the first half day of the session, all three of us came to the conclusion that this project was going to be a lot more fun than training the supervisors has been.  The participants clearly wanted to be there and were enthusiastic and appreciative.  It was completely unnecessary to make the business case for improving one’s communication and collaboration skills; they instinctively understood why it was worth taking three days away from their jobs.   One of my co-facilitators nailed it precisely when he said, “They’re not jaded yet.”

Unfortunately we know they will be, once they become supervisors.  Several of them, as they left the meeting room at the end of day three, thanked us and said, “Our bosses need to attend this class!”  The problem is that their bosses already have attended the class.  Once buried by the daily grind of task overload and the mandate to do more with less, agency supervisors begin to believe they already know this stuff and it’s not worth taking the time for a refresher and practice session.  And yet their most important resource, the people they lead, see no evidence that they “get it.”

Why do we so often wait until employees become supervisors to put them through interpersonal skills training?  The time to do it is when they still have the time, attention and open-mindedness to absorb and practice basics like active listening, dialogue, networking skills and flexing one’s behavioral style.  Once they get on the supervisory treadmill, put their heads down and start running, it’s often too late.

The good news for me and my teammates is that we get to do something about it in this particular agency, which is working toward mandating the course for all non-supervisory employees.  And that means we’ll be having a lot of fun for the next several years.

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