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Developing a Highly Resilient, Change-Proficient Work Force

by Al Siebert, PhD

Lean, customer driven, agile corporations are having difficulties finding qualified employees. The school systems are not graduating students prepared for employment in excellent, constantly changing corporations.

Hewlett Packard in Vancouver, Washington, devised a unique approach to the problem. They hired Doug Sessions, a former school teacher and principal, to be a liaison with school districts. Sessions says his mission "as Hewlett Packard’s K-12 program manager is to work with school districts, teachers, and students to improve work force quality."

The challenge in improving work force quality goes far beyond teaching students the three R’s. Sessions says that Hewlett Packard needs people with two skill sets. The basic set is "literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills."

The second set of skills covers social and personal attributes. In a lean, constantly learning and changing corporation with few middle level managers, these personal attributes are not optional. Every employee must be a member of a self-managed work team, handle change well, be self-motivated to achieve work objectives, and strive for continuous improvement.

The difficulties finding qualified employees is a national problem. Today’s successful organizations are much different from organizations in the past. They need a different kind of employee than they needed before.

In the past children were trained by parents and teachers to act, dress, talk, feel, and think as told. This training produced millions of high school graduates conditioned to be obedient employees in large organizations that changed very slowly. If you were an obedient employee who followed your job description, were receptive to performance evaluations, and didn’t cause problems for managers, you could expect to eventually be old enough to stay home and still get checks.

Now that corporations change internally so frequently, it is rare for anyone to have an up-to-date job description. Some corporations have stopped giving job descriptions to employees. They have job categories for determining compensation levels, but they need people who can get the right things done in new situations without needing to be told what to do. They need employees with qualities of professionalism. This means they need employees with inner standards who can adapt quickly, work well with others, succeed at reaching goals, and constantly learn and improve.

Self-motivated, self-managed learning is an essential attribute needed in employees in a changing workplace. Constant change requires constant learning. As anyone who has taken a psychology course may recall, psychologists define learning as "a change in behavior that results from experience." In other words, "change" and "learning" are inseparable.

Part of the problem that employers have in finding workers with attributes of professionalism stems from three different ways that humans experience developmental learning:

  • The first learning mode is parent to child, teacher to student, or authority to beginner.
  • The second is imitation of role models.
  • Third is self-motivated, self-managed learning.
    This third way is how we develop expert level skills and professionalism.

The problem is that the first learning mode, the one traditionally used for teaching reading, writing, arithmetic, mathematics, and history frequently suppresses the third learning mode. The curious student who asks too many questions may be seen as disruptive, as interfering with covering the lesson plan for the day, or as not being a "good" student.

For many decades school administrators allowed teachers to squelch students who asked lots of questions. School systems emphasized the importance of learning answers, not the importance of asking questions. I have asked audiences all over the country "Have any of you ever been to a commencement where a graduating student was honored for being the best student in the class at asking questions?" None of the thousands of people in my audiences has raised a hand.

The point here is that educational practices that produced employable graduates in the past have now become counter-productive. The old practices now produce graduates that many employers don’t want.

Sessions says "Hewlett Packard’s culture is that you never come to work waiting for someone to tell you what to do today. A tough teacher who drills students on the 47 steps for doing something is not producing an employee that Hewlett Packard wants. Different people work in different ways to reach a common objective. We focus on people reaching a high level of success, not on how people accomplish their objectives."

What does the future hold? Educators in Southwestern Washington have listened and responded to the concerns of employers in the area. One outcome is the Columbia River Education and Workforce Council (CREWC). Barbara Ritter, the project coordinator says "CREWC is the result of visionary planning and collaboration by business and education leaders in Clark County. It is committed to transforming the learning processes in our schools so that we will have a workforce that is well-prepared to enter the employment world."

Ritter says "CREWC is committed to improving the quality of life and economic competitiveness in the communities in Clark County." She says its mission specifically states that one of its purposes is to "develop expanded learning systems that increase individual responsibility for better education and self reliance."

Til Klem, a vice-president and commercial loan officer with SeaFirst in Vancouver, heartily agrees with the CREWC purposes. "We do not have job descriptions, "she says, "we give people objectives. In employment interviews we ask applicants what problems they have solved. We look for someone who is a self-starter who can work independently. I can’t waste my time with a problem employee who is not producing. We look for creative people with initiative."

Can the schools produce graduates with initiative? Graduates whose self-motivation to learn has not been stifled?

To do so, educators are going to have wrestle with a significant teaching challenge: attributes of professionalism can be learned, but they can’t be taught.

In traditional classroom settings the teacher teaches a lesson, the students study the lesson, then the students take a test to see how well they have learned the lesson. Expert learning and professionalism come from a reversed sequence. In the school of life first you get tested, then you learn a lesson afterward.

Another way of understanding the teaching challenge is to look at an important personality variable psychologists have researched. Humans vary significantly on a dimension described as the "internal or external locus of control."

People with an external locus of control want an authority to tell them what to do. They feel bewildered and flounder in ambiguous situations. These are students who respond well to a teacher who to tells them what to learn. These are employees who cooperatively follow their job descriptions.

People with in internal locus of control are self-motivated and self-reliant. They ask questions, challenge authority, invent ways to deal with problems they encounter, and take action without asking for anyone’s approval. As employees they felt constricted by job descriptions. They resisted being regimented into large organizations that wanted only good employees.

In the past the educational system has valued and rewarded students with an external locus of control, while it devalued, punished, or medicated internal locus of control students. This was a perfect training ground for traditional organizations who wanted employees with an external locus of control. Many managers reprimanded or got rid of workers with an internal locus of control.

Now employers are saying to educators "Stop the production line! We no longer want the kind of graduate we used to want. We no longer manage with instructions, now we managing with questions. Change what you are doing quickly!"

Educators find themselves being asked to do what commercial organizations must do to survive in a rapidly changing world-listen to consumers, adapt quickly, set new goals, and succeed in providing what the consumer requests.

The shift will not be quick or easy, however. A cultural change of this magnitude will take time. Barbara Ritter points out that many courses are mandated by the state. No school district, on its own initiative, can drop or significantly alter many of the courses taught. Further, the economics of instructional practices are such that a certified teacher must teach twenty to thirty children of the same age clustered together as a group.

One sign of progress in Clark County is the Business and Education Succeeding Together program. "The BEST strategies," says Ritter, "are designed to create the ‘best’ prepared workforce in the world. Employers will be encouraged to use BEST students….and can be assured that the young person will be a valuable asset."

The litmus test for CREWC and the BEST program will be the methods they use to develop the desired strengths and qualities in students. Will they undercut their goals by using the traditional teaching based model, or will they implement a learning based model that facilitates the life-long, self-motivated learning that leads to developing the expertise and professionalism that employers need?


The Resiliency Center was founded by the late Al Siebert, PhD who studied highly resilient survivors for over fifty years. He authored the award-winning book The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure and Bounce Back From Setbacks (2006 Independent Publisher’s Best Self-Help book), and best seller The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life’s Difficulties…and How You Can Be, Too.