Thursday, January 20, 2011

This David Brooks Column Should Scare Employers

The column by David Brooks in yesterday's New York Times is worth a read.

It should also scare employers.

In the column, Brooks discusses author and "tiger mom" Amy Chua, who pushes her children very hard academically and has created debate in recent weeks over the limits of overachieving parenting. He disagrees with her strict approach, saying that what kids learn socially by interacting with their peers in the school cafeteria is just as important as what they learn academically in the classroom. Eschew the social element of development, and you wind up with kids who are book smart but socially stupid. And, well, these kids turn into adults eventually. Adults who must interact with others in the workplace. Here's the pivotal part of the story:
Participating in a well-functioning group is really hard. It requires the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.

This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.

Chua would do better to see the classroom as a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood. Where do they learn how to manage people? Where do they learn to construct and manipulate metaphors? Where do they learn to perceive details of a scene the way a hunter reads a landscape? Where do they learn how to detect their own shortcomings? Where do they learn how to put themselves in others’ minds and anticipate others’ reactions?

Bravo, Mr. Brooks. Employers should shudder as they ponder the workplace of the next decade, when they could find themselves teaching young, socially-sheltered employees how to interact properly; how to construct an original thought; how to form an argument; how to be spontaneous; how to brainstorm; how to anticipate a customer's reaction; and essentially, how to be creative in the moment because they don't know how. These kids will be able to work a calculus problem like no one's business but they won't know how to read people in ways that help them navigate the social minefields of the business world, from soothing an angry customer to addressing a co-worker's concerns about a project. Throw distracting technology on top of it, and let the games begin.

Just imagine all the future managers who will be complaining that their teams don't understand the first thing about teamwork and creativity, and you have a glimpse into every other "how-to" management article that will run in 2025. Gen X and Gen Y workers should hold onto their hats, because the workplace of the next decade could be a very bumpy ride.

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