Protecting consumers in the ‘soft skills’ market place
Are you in a company which uses an external provider to deliver any of the following services?
• Stress management training • Resilience training • Coaching • Confidence workshops • Mindfulness…
….or any other topic with significant elements of human behaviour at its core? Who in your organisation decides on the appropriate provider to deliver such interventions to your most valuable resource? What factors determine these choices?
Service providers in many professions are governed by regulation.
For example, The Financial Conduct Authority monitors the standards of advice being given to consumers of financial services. In order to provide financial advice, providers are bound by strict guidelines which require them to declare their industry-standard qualifications, the manner in which they are paid, the sort of advice they can and cannot provide, and the companies they are associated with. This is in place to reduce the likelihood of financial loss caused by inappropriate advice.
Coaching, stress management and related services are sometimes labelled as ‘soft skills’. This is in itself a concern, as it implies these skills are somehow not particularly important, or that anyone can teach them. The opposite is true. These skills are arguably the most important skills we learn at work, and there are certainly many risks involved with getting any related training wrong. However, anyone can call themselves a resilience trainer, a coach or a stress management expert. This situation is rather paradoxical, as L&D often sits within or alongside HR, a function which is largely concerned with risk reduction for employees and employer.
Finding specialist expertise in an unregulated market
The market for training provision for these topics is pretty well saturated. It is also unregulated. So how to be sure you are procuring the right services?
A simple Google search for executive coaching, for example, returns 6,270,000 results. A search for resilience training returns 39,000,000. For stress management there are ‘only’ 7,820,000 to choose from!
There are some professionals who absolutely specialise in human behaviour.
To become a Psychiatrist for example, you’ll need to complete a 5-year degree course in medicine. There’s a 2-year foundation programme of general training, followed by specialist training, lasting up to 6 years.
To become a Chartered Psychologist registered with the British Psychological Society, you will need to complete a suitably accredited Psychology degree (3-4 years), a post graduate degree (1-3 years or more), then complete an unspecified period of supervision (at least 2 years).
Given the complexity of human behaviour and the brain, it is not surprising these professions seek to establish such high standards. Even after jumping through the hoops described, further specialisms are developed and more safeguards are in place. A key element for psychologists, for example, is being very clear and capable of recognizing limitations of one’s expertise and hence knowing when to refer to other specialists.
Why psychiatrists and psychologists work best together
In common for both psychiatrists and psychologists is an understanding of the complexity of the brain and behaviour. These professionals are concerned with evidence, the scientific method, they are skilled in diagnostics and reducing the likelihood of drawing incorrect conclusions. They will take into account chemical, biological, developmental, environmental and social elements.
Within their training, a considerable amount of time is dedicated to understanding research methods, including probability and statistics. This is crucial, given the complexity of the mind. They need to understand how factors can interact, for example how the environment a person is exposed to can compound a certain problem or how chemical changes in the brain can affect behaviour.
Of course in order to be a competent trainer, coach or facilitator, it is not necessary to have completed the above qualifications. Many service providers are competent and provide skilled and effective training which meets the objectives. The problem comes when issues present themselves which are beyond the defined content of the programme;
For example, you might organise a stress management training course aimed at improving resilience. This course could very likely have an attendee who has anxiety issues way beyond those addressed in the training agenda. How about a presentation skills session where the poor employee has a genuine phobia of public speaking? Anxiety should be considered to be on a continuum, and clinical diagnosis is a skilled task best left to experts.
What is the precise problem you are trying to solve?
The key to avoiding these pitfalls is awareness. Those involved in procuring services need to better appreciate the inherent risk when tackling certain topics. It is vital to understand that you are potentially taking the lid off Pandora ’s Box when tackling these so called ‘soft’ topics. To mitigate this, take steps to ensure providers are suitably qualified and skilled. More importantly, ensure that trainers are clear on the areas where they definitely do have expertise, whilst also being experienced enough to know their own limitations and signpost to HR / L&D when matters are beyond their remit, and therefore might require other expertise.
When it comes to choice of provider, it is important to put some thought into the precise problem you are trying to solve. Using resilience as an example, what has prompted you to bring trainers in? Maybe you want people to work harder, or to perform better in challenging market conditions, or to change their approach to work and improve work-life balance? A clearer definition of the problem can be the first step in identifying the best provider to select.