Critical Thinking: An Essential Soft Skill in the Age of Apps and Automation

At the 2018 World Economic Forum, Jack Ma, founder of global e-commerce sensation Alibaba, said, “We cannot teach our kids to compete with the machines who are smarter – we have to teach our kids something unique.”

Indeed, an increasing concern for employers and employees alike is the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of apps and automation in a wide variety of fields from accounting to manufacturing to retail. A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that soon an average of 15% of work activities across the globe could be displaced by automation.

What is critical thinking and why does it matter?

So what is this “something unique” we should be teaching our children – and employees? Many experts believe it’s critical thinking.

Problem-solving in the workplace can be complex, and decisions may have serious consequences. The foundation of effective problem solving is critical thinking: the ability to analyze information objectively, assess different perspectives, and reach a logical conclusion uninfluenced by emotion or personal bias. Essentially, workers need to be able to think creatively, solve problems in new and unexpected ways, communicate and collaborate effectively, and understand how to apply data to real-world situations.

The McKinsey study predicts, “Demand for higher cognitive skills such as creativity, critical thinking and decision-making, and complex information processing will grow through 2030, at cumulative double-digit rates.”

According to Professor Joseph Aoun, author of the book Robot Proof, “When I talk to employers, they tell me that they would give their right arm for more systems thinkers – quarterbacks who can see across disciplines and analyze them in an integrated way….be culturally agile, able to communicate across boundaries, and to think ethically.”

The state of critical thinking in the workplace

Although critical thinking skills are more in demand than ever, the workforce as a whole is significantly underprepared to take on high-level cognitive challenges.

A global study by MCAT reveals that 84% of managers believe their company suffered a financial loss due to a lack of critical thinking among employees. Other research finds that the higher up the ladder an employee is, the more important critical thinking becomes. A minor mistake by a low-level employee is easily fixed, but a CEO’s error in judgment could lead to disaster. And yet, 62% of respondents said their organization does nothing to recruit, hire, and train critical thinkers.

And so…

One important takeaway is that critical thinking can be taught and existing skills sharpened. However, 80% of those surveyed in the MCAT study were never offered training to improve their critical thinking skills.

Companies who invest in critical thinking development have an opportunity to ahead of the curve. Isn’t it time to give your employees this higher-level skill to help themselves – and your organization?

Examining the Effectiveness of Harassment Training

Much ink has been spilled debating the effectiveness of legalistic (and formulaic) anti-harassment training. Nearly everyone agrees that grouping employees in a room with a 1980’s era VCR/television combination unit and playing a video recorded by a corporate lawyer with little or no training on preventive practice is the wrong way to conduct harassment training, unless the only aim is to “check the box” for legal defense enhancement purposes. In the wake of the #MeToo movement not only has there been an increased number of states requiring harassment training, but also an increased backlash from employees who are being force-fed training they feel is out of touch and overly legalistic.

So what to do?

Measuring and Reinventing Sexual Harassment Training, a new article that appeared in Bloomberg Law, has taken note of recent research about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of anti-harassment training. In the article, the author notes a recent study that revealed companies are afraid to take measures on the effectiveness of harassment training because they are afraid of what the results might reveal. This type of approach is no longer acceptable in an era where harassment of all kinds receives heightened scrutiny. Providing methods of training that actually change culture is essential to creating a workplace that is devoted to respect and inclusion, and failing to develop methods to gauge the effectiveness of training is tantamount to doing nothing at all.

Syntrio has long taken the approach that legalese and lack of engagement are taboo in workplace harassment training. We believe strongly in a blended learning approach that is not over in just one hour, once every two years. Instead, implementing a learning continuum and combination of training methods is the best way to affect actual change in employee behavior, rather than scaring them about legal damages or trying to change beliefs, which has been proven impossible.

A recent study showed that on college campuses where students and employees were trained about the tactics they can use when witnessing acts of sexual violence, members of those communities became empowered to do something about it. This same approach is critical to helping stop workplace harassment, and is a major reason why Syntrio’s courses put heavy focus on what co-workers and managers can do when they hear of or see incidents they believe could amount to harassment (or even inappropriate behavior that does not meet the legal definition of harassment).

The Bloomberg article cites the need for harassment training from a number of perspectives in order to lead to greater inclusion. When organizations refuse to train their employees on perspectives that are at odds with their values or beliefs they demonstrate that they are not inclusive, and are not organizations that tend to attract or retain the best talent. Therefore, it is imperative that training include perspectives on harassment that go far beyond the traditional “male to female” approach that is taken in so many e-learning courses. Syntrio wholeheartedly agrees with this approach and has incorporated a number of diverse perspectives on the topic into its courseware.

While there may not be a quantitative method to measure the effectiveness of harassment training, there certainly are a number of qualitative and social science methods to determine if the program you have implemented works. By staying ahead of the curve and ensuring that you are using a method that works for your organization you are far more likely to create and maintain a culture of workplace respect and tolerance rather than harassment and abuse.

The Number One Reason that Employees Leave

A recent Gallup poll of more than a million U.S. employees found that the number one reason people quit their jobs is a bad boss or immediate supervisor. Even with this well-publicized statistic, most managers fail to accept their role in high turnover. A year earlier, Gallup found that only 18% of managers demonstrate a high level of talent for managing others. Put another way, 82% of managers aren’t very good at leading people. Further, Gallup estimated that managers who are poor communicators, delegators, negotiators, and lacking in other interpersonal skills cost U.S. corporations up to $550 billion annually.

Poor, or a lack of good, training is the culprit

A recent study by CareerBuilder.com found that an astonishing 58% of managers said they receive no management training. Even those with a natural affluence to lead could benefit from proper training on how to manage others in a corporate setting and, in turn, become better at leading their team.

This troubling statistic is causing good employees to leave. It also is negatively affecting a company’s recruitment, employee engagement, reputation, productivity, and revenues. And it also causes the added expense of recruiting new employees who, getting a taste of their new managers, may soon be leaving themselves.

Why good training matters

Good training for managers must go beyond the technical skills that come with the role. It must include the full range of soft skills. (Soft skills include interpersonal skills as well as managing oneself. For example, managing employees through conflict and managing yourself through conflict are both soft skills.)

How important are well-developed soft skills to a manager and organization’s success? Take one interpersonal skill, Emotional Intelligence (EQ), as an example. An empathy index published in the Harvard Business Review found that the 10 most empathetic companies increased in value more than twice as much as those at the bottom of the index. Plus, they generated 50% more earnings defined by market capitalization, from one year to the next.

Further, according to another survey, 90% of employees are more likely to stay with an organization that empathizes with their needs and eight in 10 workers are willing to work longer hours for an empathetic employer. Even in such primarily “hard” skills industries as tech, engineering, healthcare, and financial services, employees focus less on salary if it means working for an empathetic employer.

In closing…

Companies owe it to themselves, their managers and employees, business partners, and customers, to invest in learner-centric and effective soft skill training for its people leaders. Worried about ROI? Ask yourself, “Does it cost more to improve my managers and attract and keep top talent or suffer the loss of revenue, reputation, revenue, and employee engagement, satisfaction, and loyalty?

Remaining Cognizant of Harassment by Non-Employees

Few areas of harassment training draw more confusion than cases involving third parties. Employers are left wondering what they can, and should, be doing to protect their employees from harassment that originates via contact with those outside the organization. 

Hewitt vs. BS Transportation, a recent case decided in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, highlights these concerns, and its holding illustrates the difficulty in determining when an employer has done enough to protect its employees from harassment.

A truck driver named Carl Hewitt alleged that his supervisor at BS Transportation failed to take the required “prompt and corrective remedial action” when he complained of harassment by a male employee at a fuel distribution company that contracted with BS Transportation. Hewitt claimed that years of harassment occurred at the refinery, including multiple weekly incidents of sexual comments and hand gestures by the refinery employee. Hewitt alleged that he “begged” the refinery employee to stop making remarks (which made him more aggressive).

Hewitt further claimed that he complained but BS Transportation did nothing to stop the refinery employee’s behavior, specifically,  that his manager at BS Transportation promised to make a report but never told the refinery about Hewitt’s complaint, much less investigate the matter personally or via BS Transportation. Exacerbating the situation, Hewitt alleged that his manager told him to keep quiet about the incident and ultimately fired Hewitt when he brought up the incidents again.

The Eastern District of Pennsylvania held that Hewitt’s lawsuit could proceed, and that even though the issue of whether employers are liable for sexual harassment by non-employees is an open question in the Third Circuit, the Eastern District relied on other rulings by district courts within the Third Circuit who had previously held that employers are liable when they knew (or should have known) of an incident and failed to take prompt and corrective remedial action to stop the harassment.

This case will be worth following as it proceeds, as the Eastern District of Pennsylvania attempts to bring its precedent in line with that in the majority of states and judicial circuits in the United States who interpret the law as requiring employers to take action to stop harassment by third parties at a minimum when they learn it is occurring or hear of a complaint.

As such, employers should always maintain a policy of investigating and following up on complaints of harassment that employees bring against contractors, interns, vendors, customers and others dealing with the organization, regardless of where the alleged harassment occurs. In addition to being sound legal practice, such a policy will undoubtedly make your employees that interact with third parties feel more comfortable at work and know that you are doing what you can to protect them.

Soft Skills and Hard Skills: The Perfect Match

An essential software upgrade falls apart because your team fails to work together. Conflict arises and the blame game gets underway. You’ve given your your technical workers world-class coding training, so why aren’t they be better communicators and collaborators? In today’s economy, superior technical skills are not enough to ensure your organization’s success.

The critical importance of interpersonal skills, or “soft skills,” has become a much-discussed topic among academics and business leaders. Sociologists Philip Moss and Chris Tilly define soft skills as “skills, abilities, and traits that pertain to personality, attitudes and behavior rather than to formal or technical knowledge.” Communication, empathy, teamwork, creativity, flexibility, and listening are all essential competencies which employers need —and yet finding candidates and employees with these competencies is an ongoing challenge.

The Case for Soft Skills
A recent survey of over a decade of Google’s HR data concluded that STEM expertise is one of the least important qualities of Google’s top employees. The seven top characteristics of success are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others’ different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem-solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas. Other studies report similar trends: A recent report by iCIMS Hiring Insight  finds that 94% of recruiters believe an employee with stronger soft skills has a better chance of being promoted to a leadership position than an employee with more years of experience but weaker soft skills.

The Soft Skills Gap
According to a survey by Adecco Staffing, 92 percent of senior executives in the U.S. acknowledge there is a serious gap in workforce skills: 44 percent of respondents cited soft skills, such as communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration, as the area with the biggest gap. In fact, only 22 percent cited a lack of technical skills as the culprit for the U.S. skills gap. In an interview with CNBC, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner noted, “[I]nterpersonal skills is where we're seeing the biggest imbalance. Communications is the No. 1 skills gap across major cities in the United States.”

The Importance of Soft Skills Training
Organizations would be well served by developing soft skills among their new hires and current employees. There are a variety of ways to make soft skills a priority in the workplace, from making them part of performance assessments, to setting goals incorporating soft skills, to modeling the same skills in workplace interactions. In addition, online microlearning is a natural fit for employees motivated to improve their communication and other soft skills. According to the LinkedIn report mentioned earlier, “The modern employee wants to take time to learn when they’re in the office. They want opportunities to learn at their own pace and to access learning at the point of need.”

And So…
Many business leaders already know that who an employee is is just as important as what an employee can do. As former Porsche CEO Peter Schutz put it, “Hire character. Train skill.” Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson adds: “We look for people who are friendly and considerate, and who like working with others.” In the end, it’s not a competition between soft skills and hard skills, it’s about recognizing that an employee with both skill sets has greater potential, potential not even a robot could outmatch.