Authentic Soft Skills - Dr. Nick Keca

Authentic Soft Skills

Organisations invest heavily in developing their corporate culture with the aim of defining the valuesbehaviours, hard and authentic soft skills needed to create a strong brand identity.

Executive Summary

This article shines a light on some of the paradoxes created by organisation culture deployed through operating models that constrain behaviours in ways that are inconsistent with the psychological makeup of their stakeholders. While this is typical of current management practice, a large number of studies from a range of fields report significant negative consequences for organisational outcomes and stakeholders alike. Successful organisational cultures and strategies are people centric. Consequently there are more effective approaches that either avoid or reduce these negative impacts. While forcing round holes over square pegs is achievable, with enough effort, but the result is never great – a fact that business leaders can no longer afford to ignore.

Organisations invest heavily in developing their corporate culture with the aim of defining the values and behaviours needed to create a strong brand identity. In this process, the vision of the organisation’s culture is translated into practical terms and distributed throughout the hierarchy, in its policies, procedures, processes and practices. This process prescribes the behaviours of employees in areas such as ethics, conduct, performance; and nature of interactions that are prosocial in nature. For example, firms not only stipulate the required experience and qualifications needed for a role, they also specify how employees should interact with clients and customers, or the behaviours that are acceptable when dealing with difficult situations, such as disagreements and conflict between colleagues, or following traumatic events, such as those faced by the Police, First-Responders, and other emergency services personnel.

The process also determines the balance of hard and soft skills. Indeed, one of, if not the biggest challenge facing CEOs, CHROs, COOs, Human Resource (HR) Strategy and Organisational Development functions over the next decade, is figuring out how to identify and promote the prosocial authentic Soft Skills needed to compete in the dramatically changing work environment where Hard Skills are delivered by intelligent machines and automation.

While the requirements for Hard Skills are relatively easy to identify, this is not the case with authentic Soft Skills, many of which are subtle, highly nuanced, complex, and dynamic. They also represent important aspects of the People elements of strategic operating models (People/Processes/Systems). Indeed, emphasis is already intensifying on the prosocial behaviours and capabilities of people who do the tasks that can’t or won’t be automated, either because automation isn’t viable, or because people prefer human interaction where judgement, empathy and problem solving are required and customers may be willing to pay more for it.

This isn’t a new challenge. Promoting the right organisational behaviours and finding the best mix of hard and authentic soft skills has been a key factor of all business models and organisational roles. The difference, now, is that the requirement for soft skills is accelerating to meet the increasingly complex needs of technology mediated knowledge work, a trend that will continue as automation permeates business processes.

However, the diversity of the workforce guarantees that the vast majority of employees have to ‘adopt’ the behaviours required by the organisation’s culture, by mimicking or faking (otherwise known as Shallow Acting), rather than behaving in ways that more naturally reflect the individual’s authentic or true-self (i.e. psychologists refer to jobs that require intensive regulation of emotions as Emotional Labour). This creates paradoxes in many different ways as the higher the extent of emotional labour required of employees, regardless of their role, the higher the potential risk of motivation loss and psychological distress. Studies across a wide range of industry sectors and job types have reported that these paradoxes lead to feelings of Inauthenticity and result in various forms of Dissonance(cognitive, emotional, etc), which can have significant negative consequences for individuals and organisational outcomes, including de-motivation, productivity loss, dis-engagement, psychological distress, burnout, sickness absence, unethical behaviour and employee turnover (attrition), none of which are trivial.

Taking employee-attrition of front-line customer service staff as an example. Studies have found that when customer service agents regulate their emotions during interactions with customers they experience emotional dissonance. Unchecked, this contributes directly and indirectly to a number of negative consequences, including an increase in employee turnover intention and actual turnover. As it’s not unusual for outsourced contact centres to have annual attrition ranging from 50% to 200%, and with turnover replacement costs more generally ranging from 93% to 200% of annual salary (depending on job type/industry sector, i.e. recruitment, on boarding, training, productivity and revenue losses, etc), the financial impact associated with dissonance alone is eye-watering. Worse still, there is significant evidence that the issues are far more pervasive: Employee Engagement in the UK/US is only about 15% (and 1 in 5 of the highly engaged suffer from burnout); Trust in organisations and public institutions is barely 50%; and, work related stress accounts for 49% of all sickness absence in the UK, where 1 in 5 people that take days off work for stress cite other reasons for their absence.

Unfortunately, in my experience, few organisations do the ‘people stuff’ well. All too often the translation of their organisational culture into operating models and business practices are unintentionally counter-productive, and lead to serious negative organisational outcomes such as those described. This is primarily because they don’t properly assimilate understanding about the human condition and apply it effectively – which is a serious problem, bearing in mind people are the core of all organisations, as Investors, Customers, Suppliers, and Employees.

Interestingly, these factors apply equally to automated processes and human-machine interactions. In order for automated customer interactions to be successful, machine ‘behaviours’ and ‘emotions’ need to be perceived by the interacting human as being authentic, otherwise it results in feelings of distrust, dissatisfaction, and a host of other issues.

If you’re sceptical about the influence authenticity has on the human psyche, just think about the difference in auction value between an original Rembrandt painting, and a perfect fake, once everyone knows which the fake is. Authenticity is immensely complex, and it applies to thoughts, feelings, emotions, behaviours, relationships, experiences and physical things/objects. As this study reports, customer punish firms they perceive to be inauthentic.

More positively, there are many practical things organisations can do differently to avoid these issues, or reduce their impact, by entraining behaviours and emotions while ensuring that situational factors created by business processes and practices are not counter-productive in creating unnecessary dissonance. This offers significant benefits to employee wellbeing; it also diminishes the significant (often hidden) losses in shareholder value with improved top and bottom line performance.

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Doing the People Stuff Better

With more than one-hundred and fifty years of accumulated knowledge about almost every aspect of human behaviour, I don’t know why we don’t do a better job of developing organisational culture and people strategy.

I recall a conversation with a CEO about his disappointment in what he referred to as ‘Operational HR’. It wasn’t a criticism of his HR teams, rather an observation of the ineffectiveness of the people practices needed to support business operations. Practices that could have made a huge difference, financially and in other ways. More recently, a CEO of a large Business Process Outsourcer (BPO) talked about 200% employee attrition on a large account supporting a well-known global brand. Just imagine the value-stream inefficiency and EBIT loss associated with replacing your entire front-line operations team every six months – and the resulting customer/client impact. And yet, this isn’t unusual in the outsourced customer service world where employee attrition is typically between 50% to 200%, and where turnover replacement costs more generally range from 93% to 200% of annual salary (depending on job type/industry sector, i.e. recruitment, training, productivity and revenue loss) [1], the financial impact associated with dissonance alone is staggering. Such is the resilience of this trend over the last decade that it has become a business norm in an industry that employs up to 10 million people worldwide, ~80% of which are front-line staff. Clearly this degree of attrition isn’t consistent with a sustainable business model, especially when the related business impacts are a consequence of formal business practices.

The bad news keeps coming. There’s considerable evidence supporting the view that organisations aren’t doing a great job of the people stuff. Here are just a few of the global trends.

Negative Global Trends

  • Employee Engagement: Measuring issues, geographic differences and reporting sources aside, employee engagement in the UK and US is only about 15%. Think about that. Only ~15% of employees are turning up and doing their best work! The recent State of the Global Workplace survey by Gallop reported that 85% of employees are either not engaged or actively disengaged at work, resulting in approximately $7 trillion in lost productivity. Analysing the 85% further, 18% are actively disengaged, while 67% are simply “not engaged”. This latter group, making up the majority of the workforce, are not the worst performers, but they are so indifferent to the organisation that they only attend work but don’t give their best effort or ideas. Considering the share of our lives we dedicate to working, surely nobody goes to work with the express aim of not making a meaningful contribution? Doesn’t everybody start a new job feeling highly motivated and engaged? Don’t we all want to make a difference at work, and have our achievements recognised? Surely nobody invests their lives in a job merely to draw a monthly salary. So, what happens to the disengaged, ambivalent masses to make them lose the enthusiasm and motivational energy they had on their first day in the job? Is it possible that their exposure to organisational processes and practice destroys their motivation [2-5]?
  • Employee Retention: Taking the US as an example, companies spend a whopping $20 billion a year on hiring 66 million people of which only 28% are filled internally. Meanwhile, data shows that 95% of hiring is done to fill vacancies for existing positions caused by voluntary turnover, costing companies $20bn a year in the US alone. Turnover is a complex issue that occurs for a wide variety of reasons but is it possible that the motivational loss associated with employee engagement is also driving turnover, i.e. the organisational policies, processes and practices create feelings of inauthenticity and dissonance leading to increased turnover and other negative work outcomes [1, 6-11]?
  • Work related stress: The record for mental ill-health in the workplace is shocking. 1 in 6 workers experience depression, anxiety or stress related problems at any one time, resulting in 526,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the UK in 2016/17. Stress accounts for 40% of all work-related ill health where 49% of all working days lost (i.e. 72 million working days) costs businesses between £35 billion to £100 billion each year (depending on how costs are measured). About 20% of all employees take days off due to stress but 90% of these cite a reason other than stress for their absence because 15% of employees that disclosed stress related issues were either disciplined, dismissed or demoted (that’s 300,000 people). Meanwhile, Presenteeism, avoiding stress related absence, is increasing and results in two-times more productivity loss than sickness absence. Is it possible that organisational policies, processes and practices create such strong feelings of inauthenticity and dissonance that they create a stress response, burnout, and declining mental health and wellbeing [6, 8, 12-16]?
  • Trust: Trust in organisations and other institutions is declining. Surveys like the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer (ETB) report distrust in business is about 50%, even higher in public institutions. Further, the Gallup ‘Confidence in Institutions’ survey shows that barely 25% of people have any meaningful degree of confidence in business – also see Gallup at work. These are important findings, considering the wide array of research studies that report Trust is a pillar of organisational performance [17-22].

Doing Better

If organisational success is measured in terms of organisations achieving their aims…

Why would any business/organisation intentionally implement people strategies that result in such negative outcomes – for the organisation and its people?

There are too many examples where business practices have unintended (negative) consequences, so this post will focus on two of the more recent examples, Authenticity and the call to be more authentic; and, Empathy, and the similar call to be more empathetic. I’ll also suggest how we might do better.

What are Authentic Soft Skills?

Authentic Soft Skills are a combination of people skillssocial skillscommunication skillscharacter or personality traits, attitudes, social and emotional intelligence. They enable people to navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals when complemented with the appropriate Hard Skills.

When Fit is a Problem

In the workplace, improving levels of soft skills relies on a process of matching people’s characteristics and attributes to the work environment, either by recruitment or development. This is referred to as the Person-Environment Fit, or P-E Fit [3, 5].

P-E Fit is the premise for all organisational recruitment and personal development processes, and it’s the reason organisations carry out personality assessments, i.e. organisational leadership decides what characteristics and attributes it requires, and HR functions recruit, select, or develop people to be as close a fit with that vision as possible. This process cascades throughout all organisational levels. Starting at the top with an executive vision of the desired organisational culture, the people strategy is translated into actionable detail as it permeates the organisational layers. However, there is a problem in that the work environment, behaviours and characteristics of real people are vastly more complex, nuanced and dynamic than these processes tend to reflect; and, reducing complexity always results in compromises. While this may be practical approach to a difficult problem, the associated impacts of such compromises are rarely understood – because simplification reduces resolution, both in terms of Environmental factors and/or the actual Fit of the person.

The following is a prime example of an organisational response to an important emerging demographic trend, and the changes that may be needed.

Preparing for Gen Z

There’s lots of debate about the ways that Millennials (Gen Y) and Gen Z are different to prior generations, and how this influences the leadership styles and people practices best suited to meeting their needs. These discussions are well justified. This is a large section of the future workforce and recent studies by the American Psychological Association, covering 2008 to 2017, found that Gen Z are considerably more sensitive to psychological distress than previous generations, i.e. 52% to 71% increase in these young adults experiencing serious psychological distress, further evidenced by the finding that suicidal thoughts/related outcomes in these generations increased 47% in this period, and leading to the conclusion that Gen Z is considerably more prone to serious mood disorders than previous generations.

Given existing trends, it’s clear that this demographic shift creates a challenging psychological context for organisations – making it even more imperative to identify the attributesbehaviours and soft skills needed to support a people strategy that is congruent with the needs of this future work force.

In responding to changing organisational needs, two themes have emerged: Authenticityand Empathy, leading to calls-to-action for leaders and members of organisational teams to…

be more authentic; lead with the heart and be a heart-centred leader

authentic soft skills

Being Authentic

Anybody that understands the basics of human personality and personality related behaviour will understand the dilemma each and every one of us faces with every social interaction we have with another human. It’s simply this….as an individual characteristic, authenticity is dichotomous/binary, i.e. you’re either authentic or you’re not.

However, in reality, being authentic in social interactions creates a huge risk for us, especially when the consequences of such interactions are important. For example, people may not like who we actually are, which can have serious personal and economic repercussions in the workplace. It could inhibit advancement, get you fired, or it could damage important relationships that you depend on for success. To reduce this risk, we adopt behaviours that may, or may not, be closely aligned with are.

This, by and large, is how we might best describe our behaviours at work. They are still authentic, but they are authentic to that particular context, which may be quite different to the person we are in other contexts [23].

Defining Authenticity

There are lots of definitions for Authenticity. A typical dictionary definition would be…

the quality of being real or true.

A more psychological/philosophical perspective is…

The degree to which an individual’s actions are congruent with their attitudes, beliefs and desires, despite external pressures.

…or…

the outward expression of one’s internal states, traits, beliefs, values, and attitudes …and where… a [perceived] lack of authenticity is considered to be bad faith.

Being More Authentic

If Authenticity is considered to be a behaviour and a soft skill, it’s logical to think that being more authentic is a good thing. However, despite a large number of studies on Authentic Leadership, and even more on Authenticity and the concept of the Authentic Self, the notion that anyone should be more authentic is somewhat misguided. After all, if somebody is already being their authentic-self , and research suggests that most people believe they are (whether or not they actually are), asking them to be more authentic is unachievable – since being somebody else’s version of authentic means they are being inauthentic [24-27], which results in dissonance.

This is exactly what happens when organisations create and implement a model of organisational culture with associated business processes and practices that are incompatible with the organisation’s wider psychological context – it has a significant negative impact on individuals and organisational outcomes [1, 2, 6-8, 11, 13-16, 25, 26, 28-38].

[Note: the subject of authenticity, while appearing deceptively simple, is actually immensely complex and not the main point of this article – so I’ll only refer to it in broad terms.]

Authenticity is Complex

Authenticity is critical to relationships and organisational outcomes, especially where the execution of complex knowledge work tasks is dependent on collaboration and diverse human interactions – as is the case in many organisations today. It’s equally critical to the positive mental health and wellbeing of individuals [2, 14, 33, 39-41]; to enabling perceptions of morality and ethics [25, 26]; and, to effecting the prosocial behaviours [25] and trust building [14, 42-44] so crucial to developing effective interpersonal relationships, be they in the workplace or in our personal lives.

As a subject, understanding the role of Authenticity is probably the most prominent people challenge of the coming decade. Solving it will help us understand the reasons behind the explosion in narcissistic behaviour, depression [30], and other forms of mental ill-health [39, 45-48], while indicating improved approaches to promoting wellbeing. It will help us understand the global decline in trust in politicians and organisational leaders, and the real impact of fake news. It will also support the successful introduction and acceptance of intelligent machines, like chatbots and virtual agents, when they interact with humans. This is because machine behaviour will also need to be perceived as being authentic [49].

In order to be perceived as being authentic, you not only have to know yourself in different contexts, you also have to be able to be yourself, both of which are impossibly complex and may actually be impossible, particularly when organisation culture, policies and practices constrain many aspects of autonomy and self-determination critical to authentic behaviour.

We may not be able to avoid dissonance associated with inauthenticity, but we can do a better job of reducing it.

Being More Empathetic

Empathy is another emerging theme of the moment, and companies are challenging their people to increase empathy. They are even providing empathy training to this end – presumably with the aim of ensuring empathetic behaviour is sufficiently developed to be perceived as being authentic – because authenticity and empathetic behaviour are both associated with positive organisational outcomes [2, 6, 28, 46, 50].

Empathy is a characteristic that’s closely associated with the Big Five personality trait of Agreeableness. More specifically, two of its lower-level facets, Altruism and Tender-mindedness. While it makes intuitive sense that developing more empathy should have a positive impact on prosocial behaviour, and personality traits and related behaviours can be developed and the majority of people appear to want to change their personality [51], it’s important to understand the underlying psychological process so as not to under-estimate what is involved in increasing empathy.

Put simply, all personality traits are activated by and interact with situational cues. In other words, people won’t behave empathetically unless there is an opportunity to feel or express empathy, i.e. something has to trigger it. Without an appropriate situational cue to trigger behaviours associated with Altruism and Tender-mindedness, they will remain dormant. For example, in a work setting, an appropriate trigger could be an opportunity to collaborate with or help out a colleague in need. But, the motivation for helping others is egoistic. Highly Agreeable individuals are so personally averse to seeing others suffer/struggle that they do one of two things: they either walk away to avoid the personal distress; or, they help in order to diminish the intensely unpleasant feelings they have. Hence the term “I feel your pain”, typically signalling empathy, actually means you’re making me feel bad (so I’ll help you to make it stop). Empathy therefore results in prosocial behaviour through a process of alleviating personal distress – providing that the degree of personal distress caused by somebody needing help is greater than the personal distress of one’s own work pressures, and the risk of missing a deadline.

One of the challenges that may have led to the call to increase empathy is that organisational leaders are not typically high in trait Agreeableness, or its under-lying facets. That means they are not naturally predisposed to behaving empathetically in general, though, of course, they can in the appropriate circumstances, and most people want to be more agreeable/extraverted/conscientious [52-55]. While personality traits can be developed, this is not a trivial process because it involves re-programming a life-time of behavioural conditioning. It can also have unintended consequences, as too much empathy can be detrimental to individuals and organisations, by creating unhealthy levels of co-dependence and counter-productive under-achievement. Far better to create the circumstances whereby individuals are more likely to behave empathetically by reducing the circumstances that result in unempathetic behaviour. This requires much more effort than empathy training alone, and it also potentially leads to dissonance and feelings of inauthenticity if the emotional compromises are too great.

This creates a paradox and a dilemma for organisations. The majority of people want to change their personality related behaviours [51, 56-59] in ways that would make them more socially desirable [52-55], but organisation culture, and the associated behaviours it requires to enable success, are contrary to enabling people to behave differently, even when they want to.

Hiring Highly Empathetic People

Organisations can also try to select high empathy individuals during recruitment processes. But there are also several problems associated with this. Firstly, psychometric assessments for recruitment decisions are pointless – regardless of the validity of the psychometric tools used, or the shiny big-data/predictive technology widgets used to give them added sheen. Since many organisations use personality assessment for the recruitment of senior roles, that’s likely to be an unpopular and inconvenient fact. It was in 1965 when Guion and Gottier first reported it and much more is known about this now. This is because Personality States are dynamic and reflect the psychological situation in the moment. During the course of a day, the same person could be agreeabledisagreeable, or any state in-between. In fact, studies have shown that individual’s personality state related behaviour is more likely not to reflect their actual Personality Traits, generalised as an enduring disposition, and an aggregate, or sum total, of all of the individual’s personality states. So, while a personality trait is relatively stable over the course of a person’s life time, their personality states are dynamic from one moment to the next, which makes assessing personality as a single self-report event, problematic.

There’s another issue to consider. Well established research – here’s an example – shows that highly agreeable people don’t tend to be successful in a large number of work situations, likely because their predisposition to help others can get in the way of goal achievement. Indeed, some jobs would be situationally ‘toxic’ to high empathy individuals because they would be too distressing. Disappointing though that may be, a large number of studies report that nice people don’t achieve the same level of success as those that are less nice – which is not something a HR function would want to ignore when recruiting or promoting people to leadership roles, or certain jobs. This then begs the question…

Why do organisations want people to be more empathetic, and is this actually what they want?

Surely it is more appropriate to create the conditions where people are able to be more flexible in their behaviours, and to provide the appropriate situational context that doesn’t prevent empathetic behaviours, e.g. ensuring that performance goals don’t prevent empathy, or result in high levels of dissonance?

Making a Difference

These are complex issues. If they weren’t, this article would be considerably shorter.

There are also too many organisational policies, processes and practices to deal with more specifically. So, the following suggestions are indicative of the main themes that contribute to the significant negative outcomes related to inauthenticity and dissonance. There are no silver-bullets, but the high risk issues are easily identifiable so we can do a much better job of the people stuff than we currently are – according to the evidence.

  1. Any job that requires employees to regulate their emotions intensively when interacting with important others, like customers or bosses, should be viewed as a high-risk activity attracting management review or interventions. These might include interventions that entrain [6] emotional behaviour appropriately to reduce dissonance or feelings of inauthenticity; or it could involve job design to reduce the frequency and extent of shallow acting [6, 34, 46], or by allowing individuals to de-compress, perhaps through appropriate support from other team members.
  2. Cognitive, emotional and other forms of dissonance lie at the heart of these issues and organisations can do a great deal to alleviate the need for shallow acting by generating genuine buy-in. When people are emotionally engaged in the need to behave in a particular way, they replace shallow acting with deep acting, which results in positive outcomes for individuals and organisations alike.
  3. While personality assessment isn’t effective for recruitment decisions, it is incredibly powerful as a means of increasing awareness of self and important colleagues – providing assessment data is used compliantly, sensitively and effectively. The nature of personality states is such that individual’s behaviours are entirely flexible depending upon the interactions with the situational cues in the environment. As a rule of thumb, personality related behaviours are a response to the environment so, if behaviours are undesirable, change the environment not the person. Studies show that, given the opportunity of an appropriate situational context, people will authentically behave at the higher end of each personality trait, i.e. more extraverted, agreeable, conscientious, etc; and feel happier and more satisfied as a result [40, 41, 51, 52, 53].
  4. Finally, all of these factors apply equally to intelligent machines and automated processes under-pinned by artificial intelligence. While these technologies can be immediately successful for tasks that only require hard skills, tasks requiring social interactions with humans are prone to the same challenges. Therefore, algorithm programmers need to consider how authenticity and dissonance are addressed by their software programmes, otherwise they will never be accepted as a trusted alternative. The need for the Turing Test lives on.

Read the article on LinkedIn.

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