Future work: Even the greatest minds get tangled when over-stressed

Are you a highly creative, cognitively flexible, emotionally intelligent critical thinker; a person who excels in managing people and negotiating. Do you have a service orientated mind set and just love to coordinate with others?

© photo Michael Müller

© photo Michael Müller

If this is you, then you are a desired worker for the near-future. A future already knocking on our doors (just five years away). So click on the World Economic Forum site. They might just be looking for you to hire to further vision the Fourth Industrial Revolution where, they claim, robotics, artificial intelligence, learning machines, independently thinking vehicles, super cool materials and biotechnology, not forgetting genomics, rule the world economy.

The recent The Future Jobs report of the World Economic Forum includes a top ten list, of the most wanted skills HR people and business strategists have identified workers must have for a company to be a winner in the 2020 global economic race. Would you, dear reader, put your money on a company, that desires and hires mainly people that meet the above characteristics? Yes, I do not define them as skills. Most of the hype words in the list are a mixture of qualities and abilities. Their foundation is in a set of and combination of actual skills and knowhow and something that is called experience. I would not put my money on a company that doesn’t understand the importance of competencies that actually ensure that things happen. The ability to get something done should be at the near top of the list.

A “creative” person, who has no idea how to make an idea of imagination come true is a daydreamer. A “critical thinker” who has no actual knowledge about the things that are being discussed is just a person with strong opinions. Complex problem solving doesn’t happen if you do not have an understanding of content. The same holds true for judgement and decision making if you want it to be based on more than just throwing a coin or picking the opinion that appeals the most. In order to be able to work with other people, be it in management, negotiating or coordinating doings, you have to understand humans. It is so easy to talk about emotional intelligence, but what does it mean? I have encountered, throughout the years, quite a lot of people who consider themselves to be good people people but are totally blind to the effects that their actions and sayings actually have on others. And what does service orientation mean? Services for whom? And by the way “cognitive flexibility” can at its worst characterize a person that is like a weather vane or chameleon who is constantly changing viewpoints or goals and actually doesn’t get anything started or more importantly done. This type of a person isn’t able to lead or do.

In order to give meaning to the meaningless words in the ten desired worker characteristics list in The Future Jobs report you have to look deeper. Creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and tackling complexity are linked together. In order to really master the challenges of creating something new – being it a product, service, new way of working, you have to have skills, competencies and both theoretical and practical knowledge. In order to thrive in the future one of the most important competencies one needs is the ability to learn and apply learnings in different settings. As a start education should provide a foundation of a rather wide general knowledge of humanities, natural, life and technical sciences and the arts on which to build further learning. Language and communication skills, understanding words, numbers, forms, formulas and design are needed in different combinations. In spite of advances in technologies craftsmanship skills, using the right tool for a specific task are in demand. The need to use a pencil and draw does not disappear. We need handy people and different types of motor skills. We need people with common sense and a practical mind.

Everything will not be run by robots and smart machines or done in the Internet of things space and networks. It is misty in the data clouds and hard to navigate in the whirlwinds of information currents if you don’t have any knowledge-based navigation tools. I am talking about education.

The Future Jobs report claims it “taps into the knowledge of those who are best placed to observe the dynamics of work forces — Chief Human Resources and Strategy Officers”. Are these people really the best informed? I am not convinced based on the out come. The top ten “skill list” cannot differentiate people with only a shallow and superficial understanding of different topics from those who really know what they are doing and what should be done and how to meet the goals. A person who doesn’t know what it takes to make things happen cannot lead people, coordinate work, negotiate good deals.

There are large white areas in the report’s map concerning countries that where included in the survey. For instance, Northern Europe (Scandinavia) is totally missing. However, if the top ten list to some extent really reflects how employers see future working life, active listening not making the top ten list is worrying. The ability to actively listen is one of the key characteristics humans need in a complex global and social networking world. To omit this capability from the list sends the message that our future working life is all about talk talk. Don’t bother with listening to what others have to say. Active listening means that you have to have time to slow down every now and then to actually hear and more importantly try to understand what somebody else is saying.

Is the message of the report that we are more and more living and working in a world, where speed is fueling actions? Listening would just bring with it unwanted hiccups. In this scenario the risk of a work place and company ending up in a mentally short-sighted speeding mode is high. This can result in ad hoc reactivity and loosing judgement. Time is then spent in tackling “small fires” with the first solution that springs into mind or is put forward by those with the loudest voice. This does not cultivate exploration and the discovery of something new. Also bigger, underlying smoldering fires can be missed.

Active listening is important also for getting people on board and committing to common goals. It is in the core of being interested in other people and taking into account their aspirations. Can a company that ignores listening really be successful in the long run?

The most important skill on which all human performance relies has to do with health and well being. People should have basic knowledge on how the body and mind function and how one’s differing functional states (being sleepy, fatigued, energized, alert, hungry) affect behavior, performance, thinking and learning. Even the greatest minds get tangled when over-stressed. Several recent surveys from different countries have reported that burnout and being over-stressed is seen as one of the greatest risks at work and cause of failing in economic competition. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work reports that nearly half of European workers consider stress to be common in their workplace, and it contributes to around half of all lost working days. An overburdened worker is not curious, creative, positive or optimistic in troubled times. So the most important skill to have is both knowing one’s own physiologic, mental, emotional and cognitive limits and understanding that everyone else also has a limit to which one can stretch. Again, active listening to oneself and others is in the center.

Burnout causes negative emotions. Toxic emotions at workplaces spread faster than the flue. Luckily also positive emotions cultivated by good working conditions and a culture of trust are contagious. So some serious thinking and visioning should also be invested into designing ways of working and working environments in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. What does it take to build working cultures and spaces in which people thrive and the risk of burnout is low? A company that invests in humane working conditions is one in which I am willing to invest. I am certain I am not the only one.

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