Putting Ourselves in Learners’ Shoes

Teaching others is a great way to learn.

When training others or delegating a task, one of the hardest things to do is presenting the information in a way the person understands.  Sometimes we think of this as “explain it as you would to a 5 year old.”  It really boils down to putting ourselves in the position of a beginner when we are the expert.

This article delves into this topic nicely.  While it focuses on college professors, it really applies to anyone is I the position to help others acquire new knowledge, skills, or abilities.  Putting the educators in an uncomfortable position of learning something new really served as a reminder of how difficult it can be to pick up on something you don’t know.

While it’s not necessarily practical to have managers and trainers master a difficult puzzle in order for them to empathize with others who are learning, there are some actions that help put them in a better position to do so, including:

  1. Make sure there is good two-way communication during the learning process.  When delegating a task, a manager should ask the delegate to describe what is being asked of her/him/them in order to demonstrate understanding.
  2. Explain things to people in multiple ways. This leads us to think about tasks in more than one way (e.g., only the way we think is best) so that it’s understandable to a wider audience.
  3. Be patient with the learner as he/she/they attempts the task.  All of us learn through both success and failure.  You need to let both of them happen and that takes time.

We all learned what we do in our work with sometimes good, and sometimes not so good, teachers.  Our effectiveness in delegating or teaching tasks partially lies in putting ourselves in the position of the learner rather than the expert.  By thinking of ways to do that, we’ll be more effective in improving the skill levels in our organizations.

Hiring For and Developing Resilience

I frequently hear clients talk about how they need to hire people who are resilient.  When I press them on what that means to them, they come up with words and phrases like:

Bends, but doesn’t break.

Learns from adversity

Performs well under stress

Doesn’t take work setbacks personally

These things are all true and part of the personality trait Emotional Stability, which can be a good predictor for some jobs.  But the aspect of resilience which gets overlooked, but can be equally important for employee selection and development, is sociability.  While the stereotype of the resilient person as one who swallows his/her/their emotions and hunkers down, there is scientific evidence that we build resilience when we reach out to, and accept help from, others.

This is useful in selection in that it can alter the types of tests that we give and what we look for in responses to interview questions.  For instance, when asking, “Tell me about when you had to meet a tight deadline,” an answer like, “I reached out to my team and asked how they could help” shows more resilience than, “I put everything aside and worked by myself until I completed the assignment.”  This additional dimension is useful in interpreting validated personality tests as we can then look for people who score high on Emotional Stability and willingness to work with others.

For development, we can teach people the power of reaching out to others during difficult times.  For managers, this means offering assistance to those who are struggling rather than waiting for them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.  For individual contributors, this requires a message that reaching out to others when you need help builds resistance and is not a sign of weakness.  Of course, these messages require reinforcement by senior management so that they become part of the culture.

To see if resilience is a key part of jobs at your company, you can do the following:

  1. Conduct a job analysis.  Whether you use surveys or interviews, you can gather data about how much stress or pressure feel people feel in their jobs.
  2. Find out what effective resilience looks like.  During the job analysis, have people describe critical incidents where resilience was (and wasn’t) shown.

This data can be used for selecting future hires by:

  1. Sourcing a validated and reliable instrument that measures Emotional Stability and willingness to communicate with others (and other tests which measure important aspects of the work as found in your job analysis). 
  2. Administering the test(s) to incumbents.
  3. Gathering measures of how participants are performing on the job, including resilience.
  4. Analyzing the data to see if the measures of Emotional Stability and communication are correlated with measures of resilience and/or performance.
  5. Using the results to screen future candidates.

The job analysis data can be used for developing employees by:

  1. Sourcing or designing training materials that address the critical incidents described in the job analysis.  The more behavior/role playing in the training, the better.
  2. Gathering measures of how participants are performing on the job, including resilience.
  3. Conducting the training and gather feedback from participants.
  4. Measuring performance, including resilience, after enough time to see the impact of the training.
  5. Making adjustments to the training material based on the feedback and performance data.

Note that in each case you are seeking to demonstrate the impact of improving resilience in your organization. Just as importantly, you are establishing its importance in the company and taking steps to weave it into your culture.

Managing WFH Scheduling Changes

As COVID cases are dropping and the vaccines are available, companies are looking to see when (if?) they are going to bring people back to offices.  There are likely to be all kinds of flavors of this, ranging from:

  1. We want everybody back, Monday through Friday.
  2. We need some people back full time, others can still WFH.
  3. Everyone needs to be in the office 2-3 times a week and WFH the rest.
  4. Everyone can stay WFH, but those who prefer to come in can.
  5. Everyone stays WFH


And these don’t include flexible hours, people staying part-time, etc.  There are going to be a LOT of models.  There is no one best way for every company, but there are some consistent steps you will want to consider as you manage work schedules changes (again). These include:

  1. Consider ALL of your stakeholders.  This means listening not just to executives who feel that people are more productive at the office or the employees who feel that they are missing out on promotional opportunities by working from home.  Be sure that your support staff (HR, IT, security, etc.) is also in a position to support those who are coming back (or staying home).
  2. Be clear to everyone about your reasons for the schedule changes.  If you have data that supports that teams are more productive in the office, then share it.  If you have data that shows that people are still getting promoted at the same rate during WFH, share that, too. And don’t forget health department data on infections, positivity rates, etc. Use good information, rather than anecdotes, drive your decisions and communicate about the data.
  3. Track metrics of success and adjust the schedules as necessary.  Whether it is what was mentioned above, rate of infections, use of PTO, turnover, absenteeism, or something else, have conversations about what success looks like.  Then measure progress towards it.  The data may allow you to accelerate your plans or alter them in some other way.
  4. Check in with your stakeholders as the revised policies are implemented.  Sometimes we think that people who initially support change will always be in favor of it and those who are resistant stay that way. Keep asking stakeholders what they need to continue to support, or to become supportive, of the changes.
  5. Communicate the metrics.  Whether it’s through an online dashboard or a regular e-mail, keep people apprised of progress (or lack thereof).  Transparency helps to control the rumor mill and provides reasons for altering the initial plan.

Going back to “normal” requires the same level of change management skill as implementing something different.  Be sure that you apply these techniques to help implement and manage schedule changes as you navigate through COVID.

Going back to “normal” work schedules is going to take as much change management skills as WFH did.  Here are some thoughts on implementing the new normal more effectively.

Can We Accurately Evaluate Leadership Before Someone Has a Chance to Lead?

In general, our personalities are pretty stable over our adulthood. Yes, we mature and big life events can alter us, but the building blocks of who we are as people are closer in stability to our eye color than our hair color.

This stability has been important to the science of employee selection. The underlying idea of giving any type of pre-employment or promotional test is that the knowledge, skill, ability, or characteristic being measured is stable in that person for a given period of time so that it can be used to predict future performance. With skills, we assume that they will improve over time, so we look for those that a person has right now. For personality and cognitive abilities, we assume that a person will have those at a consistent level for many years and that these aptitudes can be used to develop specific skills, such as leadership.

When I conduct leadership workshops, I typically ask participants if leaders are born (e.g., do some people just have what it takes) or made (e.g., pretty much anyone can be an effective leader if given the right opportunities to develop). The conversation gets people thinking about what behaviors are necessary to lead (good communication, willingness to direct others, attention to details, etc.), which of those can be taught, and which cannot. Put another way, to become a professional basketball player, I can improve how well I shoot, but I cannot do too much about how tall I am.

But, what if we have the direction of trait to leadership wrong? What if the traits to become a leader don’t blossom until someone is given the chance to lead?

This study suggests that being promoted into a leadership position does change the conscientiousness factor of personality. Conscientiousness has been found to be a significant predictor of overall manager effectiveness. It’s an interesting idea in that it suggests that, for some people, we do not know if they have a sufficient amount of a trait that contribute to leadership success until after they become leaders.

As with all good research, it poses as many new questions as answers. For instance, were there increases in conscientiousness across the spectrum or only among certain groups (e.g., were there gains for those who already showed relatively high levels of conscientiousness, so the rich got richer)? Or, does it take a leadership experience to bring out conscientiousness in people who typically do not show it? Or, is leadership a tide that raises everyone’s conscientiousness?

Practically speaking, this is where the study has me thinking about assessing leadership:

1)  Putting a re-emphasis on using performance on temporary assignments that involve leadership as part of the selection process in promoting people into supervisory positions. 

2)  Validating responses on personality tests that are taken after a person goes through a leadership role-play exercise or situational judgment test.

3)  Re-thinking what aspects of personality indicate leadership potential (e.g., willingness to direct others and resilience) and broaden our list of things that are leadership skills to include some other aspects of personality (e.g., conscientiousness). We can then focus on selecting based on the former and training on the latter.

Some people have the right mix of attributes that allow leadership to come easily to them. As it turns out, some of those things become more apparent after a person has a chance to lead. This should encourage us to think about how we choose to evaluate leadership potential.

Tips For Bringing People Back After COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has already affected businesses large and small.  While as of this writing it is unclear we (in the US) are closer to the beginning or the end of business restrictions, we can safely assume that some businesses will not be bringing back all of their staff when the restrictions are lifted.  This will lead to some tough decisions that have legal and performance implications.  Since I’m not a lawyer, I’ll focus more on the latter.

In an idea world, companies have processes for measuring performance.  Where objective measures are used, they are relatively free of environmental conditions.  Where managers rate performance, they are relatively free of bias.  If these represent your company, then you have an easy way to bring people back—top down based on their performance.  Note that collective bargaining agreements may render any other process moot as they may have last in, first out provisions.

Let’s say for a moment that your evaluation processes don’t live in the land described above.  Then what?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Think about how the business is going to look as things recover. What parts will stay and which ones may go (or be dormant for longer)?  This will help you think about the skills and abilities you’ll need in your staff.
  2. Have managers rate employees on the skills and abilities described above NOW.  The longer you put it off, the less reliable the ratings.
  3. Be explicit about how the ratings match up with the work to be done. It is always important to document these kinds of decisions.
  4. Use the data from the managers to develop a recall list.  That way you are bringing back the people who will help the business most first.  This will help in retaining your best people if you begin rehiring before others.

You should also be thinking now about how you are going to communicate the re-opening process to your employees.  There may not be enough data now for you to craft a message now, but HR should be considering different options so that when decisions are made they can be communicated quickly and effectively.

Skills of the Future

The nature of work has always changed and will continue to do so.  This report from the World Economic Forum outlining trends and predictions came out a year ago.  I find its conclusions as true today as they were when it was first published.  It is a bit of a long read, but does break things out by country which shortens the time required a bit.

The net of the study is in the table below.

The Declining skills are instructive.  Not surprising, the list contains skills which are being automated (management of resources, quality control, manual dexterity, etc.).  Others are in response to a change in workplace culture which places higher value autonomy (management of personnel).  We can have a separate conversation as to what it means that active listening is on the Declining list.  What that leaves us with (see the Trending column) are the skills that are becoming more important in the near future.  Innovation and learning top the list with plenty of problem solving skills.  Seeing emotional intelligence on the list made me throw up in my mouth a bit, but there is no surprise about social influence.

The practical aspect of the report is to get us thinking about the skills that we really need for jobs in the 2020’s.  As we automate more, how does that change our expectations of employees?  At McDonald’s, automation means more interaction between staff and guests.  With managers being freed from coordination and time management, what is it that we will want them to do?

Here’s how to keep up:

  1. You probably need to review your job descriptions more often than you think.  And you should definitely do so after introducing new technology.

  2. Updated job descriptions should feed into your recruitment process.  Be sure that you are not advertising for yesterday’s jobs.

  3. The Trending list throws down the gauntlet as to how we select candidates.  Whether it be updating tests, interviews, or what we look for on resumes, knowing that we need more creativity and leadership, and less management, from those who direct the activities of others is a BIG difference.  If our selection tools are to be valid, they need to keep up with changing jobs.

By making these updates, we can drive the recruitment and selection of employees with the right skill sets.  It also provides us with a framework of being ahead of futures skill changes.

Who’s Next?

My process improvement friends like to say, “Improving the work is the work.”  There is some truth to that in HR as well.  But, I think that it is also fair to say that “Keeping the talent pipeline full is the work.”  I’ll admit that it’s less catchy.

Succession planning is a topic as old as business, so I will cut to the chase:  This may be an area where companies are getting better.  The data is interesting as well in that it shows (at least in this sample) that public companies are better at it than private ones.  I would be curious as to whether there is an additional split between family owned and other types of ownership among the private companies.

I think that transparency (welcomed or not) has a lot to do with boards (and, hopefully, HR) being more concerned about high level succession planning.  Part of what big investors are buying is the leadership team and the more focus there is on CEOs and their impact, the more concern investors will have in the less-than-famous leaders.

Good succession planning does not stop at the C-Suite.  It should be considered part of talent development for every position in the company.  Whether it is at the entry (where are we going to find new employees?) or management (how can we identify leadership potential?) levels, the work is ensuring that there is a strategy for identifying talent.

This process involves both valid assessment (who is interested and capable of doing what we need?) and development (what are the experiences that a person needs to be prepared for the next move?).  Keeping the pipeline full means focusing on both so that when a position comes open the question, “Who’s next?” can be answered quickly and reliably.

Are we Biased AGAINST Top Talent?

We all want to believe that we are looking to recruit, select, and develop top talent.  We spend lots of time reading and writing articles on the topic.  But, what if hiring managers are not interested?

This article throws a bit of cold water on the topic.  It documents a study where hiring managers were shown to doubt the organizational commitment of those deemed the most capable.  It was almost as if they were saying, “Why would someone really good want to work for us?”

There are several issues at work here.  But, what they boil down to is a bias among hiring mangers that negatively affects their selection processes.  Sure, I can imagine anecdotal evidence (“Yeah, we hired that one really bright person, but she jumped ship as soon as she got a better offer.”), but I don’t think that this is a data driven decision.

What this also underlines is the importance of developing a culture that encourages top talent to stay.  There’s no question that selecting the right people will drive business performance.  And having a culture that acknowledges and rewards high performance will do so as well.  When hiring managers feel that top talent will not stay, it is really an indictment of the culture rather than an accurate prediction of management’s view.  How can you fight this?

  1. If managers do not think top talent would be committed to your organization, they should NOT be involved in hiring. 
  2. Those who are doing the hiring should be able to provide a realistic preview of the organization, but should also be able to succinctly describe why people stay.  And I’m not just talking about a good cafeteria.  They should be able to provide examples of people who have found challenging work over time in the organization.
  3. If you are speaking with hiring managers who show an anti-talent bias, ask them what needs to be changed so they would believe that top talent would want to stay.
  4. The best way to fight bias is with data.  You should be able to study turnover rates by talent bands (contact me for tips on this).  This way you can either show people that top talent does not leave any faster than other employee groups or demonstrate to executives that this is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Organizations should strive for selection processes that identify top talent and cultures that nurture them.  Do not let bias against hiring top talent work against these two initiatives.

Shaping Skills to Your Work

It is important to use valid selection tools to hire people for the work you have for them.  But, what happens when technology changes the tasks or the jobs get replaced by automation?  You can let people go as their work becomes obsolete and hire new staff.  However, in times with low unemployment, this strategy will be difficult to execute.  Or, you can train people to acquire the new skills.  This has big implications in industries where tech is changing the nature of work, such as mining and warehousing, just to name two.  However, trying to train lots of people in new skills assumes that they have the interest and aptitude for learning them.  Remember, people chose to pursue their given job/career for a reason.

Amazon and Walmart provide an example of this type of investment.  Their programs include technical and college training.  What is telling about their plans is that neither company considers it a “nice to have.”  Rather, it is an acknowledgement that the skills it takes to run their businesses are changing and they don’t think they can find enough talent to meet future needs in the labor pool.  This may be because so many young people want a career that requires as little work as possible.

The situation also makes one think about selecting people for industries where the skills required change rapidly.  Instead of using tests or interviews that focus on specific abilities, perhaps addressing broader ones, such as openness to new experiences and general aptitude, will serve companies better.

Trying to Stop the Tides

It seems very old-school, but sea ports are still very big business.  The twin ports in southern California (LA and Long Beach) are a huge economic driver (they are the primary sender/receiver of goods between North America and Asia) and employer.  But, they are also one of the biggest polluters in the region.  For as long as I can remember, there has always been a balancing act to keep the ports humming and making the area healthier.

A bit more under the radar has been the creep of automation. While car companies fought this battle with their unions a generation ago, the idea that automation can be stopped is still alive and well among the longshoremen.  This article gets into some of the specifics regarding the plan and it potential impacts.

From an HR perspective, the bigger story here is not the automation (it is going to happen as it makes the port more eco-friendly and efficient), but the lack of planning regarding the retraining of workers.  It is somewhat surprising that this is occurring at the ports because most of the labor disputes over the last 20 or so years have not been over wages but over the number of jobs.  The port and the union are now in negotiations about retraining and head count for different positions, but this is time and goodwill being spent now on solutions that could have been anticipated.

A better approach would be:

  1. Analyze the skills required for current jobs and for those created by the automation. Yes, new equipment needs to be programmed, maintained, etc.  Metrics of productivity and cost need up to updated, tracked, etc.
  2. Where the skills map directly, there no problem and this should be communicated to those employees.
  3. Where the skills don’t completely map, determine how the skills can be acquired.
  4. Communicate the path to skill acquisition clearly to those whose positions are going to be eliminated or changed. It should be presented as an opportunity rather than a threat.
  5. Provide adequate resources (tuition reimbursement, time away from work, etc.) to allow for the retraining.
  6. Develop and/or promote an internal posting system for those who cannot be placed in the new positions.

Automation has always been a part of business and that is not changing any time soon.  Trying to prevent is as useless a stopping the tides.  However, planning for it allows companies to keep valuable employees and for employees who are willing to upgrade their skills to stay employed.

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