The Critical Job Skill Nobody’s Talking About

Written by Mike Shapiro | | June 1, 2017

Quick question: What are the top skills employers should look for in an applicant? Here’s one article that says it’s communications skills, organization, teamwork, punctuality and critical thinking. And another that says it’s attention and focus, curiosity and commitment, agility and humility.

But what happens when the “perfect” employee shows up with all those skills, only to find that the employer comes up less than perfect?

Increasingly employers are perceived as not treating workers the way they expect to be treated. Maybe part of it is that everybody’s just too busy reacting to the minute-by-minute demands of customers, competition and regulation.

Some of it may have to do with inflated expectations on the part of the worker and a lack of skills and readiness to deal with less-than-ideal conditions at work.

In her brief but power-packed piece in The New Yorker, The Work You Do, The Person You Are, Toni Morrison talks about her first job — how good she felt working to make her own money to spend on things she wanted, and feeling even better about the way the money she brought home made her an important and valuable contributor to her family’s financial well-being.

Cut to today’s workplace. Just as in Ms. Morrison’s youth, every employment relationship creates expectations on both sides. But somewhere along the way, the employees’ side evolved from simply wanting a paycheck to expecting a form of care-taking by the company they work for.

The gratitude expressed by Ms. Morrison for the pure satisfaction of simply having a paying job stands in stark contrast to the grand expectations of some of today’s workers.

A person from another planet — or even a previous generation — reading most of the articles about the current workplace experience would be stunned to see all the things we expect our employers to do for us:

  1. Give us work that we find personally “meaningful.”
  2. Allow us to be “engaged” and have a voice in the important decisions of the company we work for.
  3. Ensure that we have a boss who is intelligent, wise, enlightened, nurturing and caring, and who can be counted upon to provide clear direction and guidance.
  4. Make optimal use of our talents.
  5. See to it that our job level and compensation are “fair” when compared to those of co-workers.
  6. Provide a psychological support system when we face a crisis in our personal life.
  7. Establish a “career path” for us so that we are on track for increasing levels of responsibility.
  8. Establish learning opportunities, growing our capabilities to be used there or taken with us to work for a competitor.

The problem is that all the hopes and dreams of a lifetime of working satisfaction have found their way onto a scorecard against which employers are being measured. And it’s reached a level beyond the reasonable and realistic capacity of any company. Should we be surprised about reports from employee climate surveys that workers don’t feel they’re “valued” in the way they expect to be?

You can see how it happened. The company is in business to serve customers, and all eyes have to be on customers’ problems, needs and desires — and how to get them what they need faster, better and cheaper than the competition. It’s tough to do that these days, requiring long days of unclear objectives, ambiguous direction and incomplete management communication. It’s natural that employees want and expect more in return for their extra time and effort and commitment.

It also means every worker has to bring a realistic view about what their employer can do for them, and what they should expect to do for themselves.

Hiring managers should be checking to see that an applicant has what it takes to hang tough when disappointment sets in. It’s a good idea to ask questions like:

“Tell me about a time when you…

  1. Stepped in to tackle a surprise problem that affected not just your unit, but the greater organization.
  2. Were stalled on a big project and figured out the right person to go to for specialized help outside your usual team members and regular contacts.
  3. Helped your boss solve a challenge she was wrestling with that didn’t directly concern your work.
  4. Persevered with high energy and dedication despite lack of direction, incomplete communications from your boss or lack of support — or in the face of counterproductive or blocking actions — on the part of coworkers.
  5. Felt unappreciated for your efforts, and describe what you did about it.
  6. Had your work made harder by an inadequate handoff from an associate.
  7. Been passed over for promotion or position you felt you should have had, in favor of an associate you felt was less qualified or someone from outside the company.
  8. Stepped outside your role to help a struggling associate or area meet their deadline.

We’d have little sympathy for the pro quarterback who complains about the offensive line’s failure to protect him from a pass rush or the coordinator’s sending in a play that didn’t work.  The major league pitcher would look silly whining about the centerfielder’s dropping a fly ball or the shortstop’s bobbling a sharply-hit ground ball. We expect a certain composure and resolve, even from newer players, to stay in there and help the team work its way out of adverse situations of the team’s own making that inevitably arise.

Sure, companies ought to do the best they can to provide a safe workplace conducive to employees putting forth their best efforts. But employees should expect that their employers — and their co-workers, peers, supervisors and execs — will regularly come up short, and be ready to do what they have to do to make things work out right for the company, its customers and each other.