Soft sell or hard sell: What works best to get learners engaged?
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Soft sell or hard sell: What works best to get learners engaged?

When it comes to getting people to engage in training – especially skeptical or reluctant learners – there are basically two options:

  1. The soft sell: Use your authority as an expert to convince learners that the learning will be worthwhile.
  2. The hard sell: Make the training mandatory.

Option 2, of course, gets the most compliance. But if you force training on people, they’ll just resent it, right? On the other hand, if you go with Option 1 many people will opt out no matter how convincing you are.

So which option should you use?

The research

It’s no surprise that authority is a powerful tool to get people to do what you want. But research has identified two very different kinds: “soft” and “harsh” authority.

Option 1 uses soft authority. It relies on expert status to persuade people to comply. For example, learners might be more willing to try a new selling technique if there’s research from Harvard Business School to back it up, or if a highly successful sales rep vouches for it.

Option 2 is an example of harsh authority. It uses the power of the organizational hierarchy to gain compliance – for example, a manager who threatens to discipline any employee who misses a training program.

As you might expect, harsh tactics can backfire. Research shows that they can lead to lower job satisfaction. Taken too far, flexing your authoritative muscle can turn employees against you.

But here’s the twist:

These negative effects can be avoided if harsh authority is combined with soft authority.

In other words, employees don’t resent bosses holding their feet to the fire – as long as there’s also credible soft authority backing them up.

In fact, research shows that the combination of harsh and soft tactics are more effective than either used alone.

Implications for trainers

These findings suggest that training will be more effective if trainers (the “soft” authority) and bosses (the “harsh” authority) work together. It’s fine to make training mandatory, but you still have to convince learners that the training will be worth their time.

In addition, bosses should leverage their authority in support of training objectives. They should show that training is a priority and take ownership of their coaching responsibilities. Likewise, organizations should communicate their commitment to the training program.

At the same time, trainers should look for ways to build more “soft authority” into their training content – for example, through research and testimonials.

Finally, trainers shouldn’t be too humble about their credentials and qualifications. The power of their expertise will help get learners to engage and follow through. In one study, for example, simply hanging a physical therapist’s diploma in plain sight increased patients’ compliance with the therapists’ recommendations by 34%.

Cialdini, R.B. (2001). Harnessing the science of persuasion. Harvard Business Review, 79(9), 72-79.
Cialdini, R.B. and Goldstein, N.J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-621.

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