As a consequence of my recent blog, Three questions about questioning, I had one of those instructive, aha moments. In the blog I noted that two business profs and one world-famous Harvard professor had drawn conclusions about questioning skills that simply would not stand up to scrutiny. After posting the blog, I questioned why these academics were so unaware of what’s going on in the nitty-gritty of business. After a sleepless night and a few days of restless probing, as well as a lot of reflection upon my own checkered career, the answer came zinging back at me: selection bias—what I call the Ivory Tower Effect.
Selection bias comes to us out of statistics and it refers to an erroneous selection of data, individuals or groups taking part in a scientific study. Significantly, one distinction of the bias is that it undermines the ability to generalize research results to the rest of the population. In this instance, however, the profs’ assumptions about questioning wouldn’t generalize or apply to any group of business people, but. . . that’s another issue.
Selection bias is rampant in business books, especially those from elite university profs, top consultants and their firms. Though they never admit it, their target audience is inevitably biased to upper-level managers and execs, not the ordinary entry-level nor the huge mass of workers who do all the grunt work—buy few books--and lack the power to hire the elite....
These well-known and highly-respected gurus have no awareness of what this major group of employees thinks—or doesn’t think, knows–or doesn’t know about interpersonal skills such as questioning.
To put it bluntly, my aha explained why university elites and top consultants can’t possibly have an understanding of the typical worker’s soft-skill base. They have no interest in the subject.
There are, however, a number of issues contributing to this problem.
Little to no investment in soft skills
With “soft skills” off the radar screen, the most obvious needs become the so-called “hard skills” like goal setting, updating software, appraisal and project management. Managers and execs are seemingly clueless about the obvious fact that in today’s world “soft skills” are the infrastructure for all “hard skills.” But if you’re blind to the obvious, you won’t invest in what you can’t see.
Also, the mechanistic model, still with us in different forms (think Henry Ford’s assembly line), needed no soft skills. Employees had simple, repeatable skills. The only managerial task was to keep the line going and the worker screwing in so many widgets per hour. While most work now is not factory-line work, organizations still carry this mental model with the illusion that soft skills have no impact on the bottom line. Add it all up and you get no investment in soft skills. So why would any smart HR trainer emphasize soft skills when the boss doesn’t understand the need? Or why would any intelligent elite business person consult in a field where the remuneration will be small, when he could make six or seven figures in strategy development, organizational redesign or innovation process?
Soft skills are hard to teach and learn
Research reveals that trainers and managers are only “moderately successful” in teaching hard skills. But soft skills are a different animal with a success rate of “less than mediocre.” By the way, that also includes leadership skills. The major problem is that the conversational uses of these skills are highly unpredictable. You think you’ve asked the right question to get the answer you need and what follows has no relation to what you wanted. We’ve known for years that the success rate in communication interactions is less than 50%.
In the mid 1980s, I was unbelievably fortunate to work for a Pillsbury CIO who understood the facts. He’d tell me what soft skill development was needed and ask what my potential for success was. I’d screw up my face and respond 55% to 60% and he’d say something like “that’s an acceptable batting average. Let’s do it.” There aren’t many senior managers like him around. But thankfully, we have a great deal more research today on how to develop soft skills. Still, it’s not widely disseminated.
Soft skills are rarely incentivized
Although some firms are incentivizing managerial coaching, it’s still rare. That’s because few in business believe there’s a relationship between profit margins and effective soft skills. They can see how, say, coding or manufacturing skills add to the bottom line. But they don’t know how to total up the cost of misunderstandings, breakdowns, failures to think through and definitively question strategic decision making or build the quality of relationships necessary for effective project management.
There is one significant exception: sales relationship skills. Firms will indirectly incentivize those soft skills, but that’s usually where it ends.
Pulling all this together, it’s obvious there’s no reason for elites to have knowledge—or even competencies--in soft skills like questioning. Business elites, seeing no financial opportunities, will continue to be clueless about soft skill knowledge—and it won’t get incentivized.
What’s to be done?
Always, always question business elites and especially top consultants. None of them are infallible. Obviously, you have to know something about their subject to question them intelligently and overtly. But if you’re in the dark about the issue, then jot down your questions for yourself and search for the relevant information.
Always maintain a student mode at work and in life. Keep learning front and center and make it part of your work. It’s the rare company that’s going to educate you, so take the learning time out of your daily schedule. And politic for your own learning opportunities. You are your own best teacher—but learning is always a contact sport. In other words, leverage others’ knowledge and help as best you can.
Finally, stay tuned to my blogs. For example, I’ll be writing about how and why to use questioning skills, as well as teach you how to teach yourself. Furthermore, I intend to eventually argue that the skill of questioning—implicitly and explicitly—is the key factor for avoiding misunderstanding and enhancing communication.
Of course, I expect you to be as critical of my recommendations as I am of others’.