From Academia to Industry ­— Combating Negative Career Effects

Excerpted from the ACBSP Conference 2017 proceedings.

Safe spaces. Trigger warnings. Micro-aggressions. Today’s American student may not be viewed as resilient as their predecessor. According to the article Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges, by Dr. Peter Gray, declining student resilience is a “serious problem” for today’s universities. What past generation students would call the bumps of everyday life, today’s students call a crisis. Declining student resilience has reshaped the university landscape wherein faculty are spending more time handholding and counseling, lowering their academic standards because they are fed up with student complaints, are concerned about being dinged on teacher evaluations, are not challenging their students as much as they would like, and are seeing students taking less academic risks. These issues are even more problematic for newer faculty who have little experience dealing with today’s college students. According to Gray, this lack of resilience is “thwarting the emotional and personal development of students.”

One potential correlator to reduced student resiliency is society’s perception of competition. According to the Fox News article, Unhealthy Competition, a school district in Indiana eliminated its valedictorian system because it felt that it promoted unhealthy competition. Instead of honoring the achievements of a few, it plans to honor the many. School districts in North Carolina and Kentucky have shifted from the traditional valedictorian system to a Latin honor system, but some say the new system discourages academic achievement. Such decisions seem to perpetuate the belief that students are living in a trophy society, and attempt to cushion the feelings of students when they do not come in first place. “Helicopter parenting, coupled with the belief that we should never let our children fail, have given rise to kids who are ill-prepared to cope with life’s challenges,” according to CNN Health. Attempting to minimize the pain of failure is one thing; teaching mediocrity and training students to believe that everyone comes in first place is another. What ever happened to the adage that failure is the great life teacher?

Helicopter parenting, coupled with the belief that we should never let our children fail, have given rise to kids who are ill-prepared to cope with life’s challenges.

Dr. Everett Piper, President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, discussed the pervasiveness of American culture’s willingness to teach young people self-absorption and narcissism, rather than introspection and humility. Today’s students seem to be experts at playing the victim card.

When someone dares to challenge or question them, the narcissistic ‘me-monsters’ label that person a victimizer, oppressor, hater, or bigot. Unfortunately, “We are grooming our students to be sensitive crybabies when we need to be showing students how to deal with world situations and how to be adults.” A number of students were upset at the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Universities became incubators for safe spaces where faculty cancelled exams due to the fragile emotional state of students, hosted cry-in sessions and therapeutic sessions with puppies, and had students playing with teddy bears, Play-Doh and coloring books. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) said that academic institutions are no longer intellectual boot camps, but rather kindergartens for adults, where students are “treated as fragile, intellectual children and coddled with a ‘safe space’ response to anything challenging or unsettling.” How do such responses and activities adequately prepare soon-to-be graduates for the real world? Ironically, universities are trying to avoid the marginalization of students, and yet the very nature of indoctrinating students into feeling uncomfortable when exposed to unfamiliar or uncomfortable matters is creating a marginalized mindset that will carry over into employment.

We are grooming our students to be sensitive crybabies when we need to be showing students how to deal with world situations and how to be adults.

In her book Emotional Resilience, Geetu Bharwaney said “Resilience is now recognized as an important factor in the workplace. In the…turbulent context of today’s working world, the resilience of both individuals and organizations becomes paramount in order to survive and thrive.” In 2014 Gallup’s inaugural national report, Great Jobs Great Lives, found that life during college was important for life after college. The odds of being engaged at work, which was operationally defined as being intellectually and emotionally connected with colleagues, was higher if students felt emotionally supported during college, had professors who cared about their well-being, and felt that their school prepared them well for life after college. Unfortunately, of the graduates who were surveyed in the report, 49% reported that they were not engaged in their workplaces and 12% said that they were actively disengaged in their workplaces.

A 2006 study conducted by The Conference Board, Inc., underscored the importance of workforce readiness in the 21st century and targeted the business community and institutions of higher learning, found that college graduates who lacked applied skills like teamwork/collaboration and leadership were creating a burden to their organizations and society. The operational definition of teamwork/collaboration was the ability to effectively build relationships, and the operational definition of leadership was the ability to leverage others and involved interpersonal skills.

According to Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of the best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, effectively building relationships is about relationship management, which is a central tenet of emotional intelligence (EI). Leveraging others requires the ability to understand other people and to work cooperatively with them. People with higher EI tend to desire outcomes that benefit others and self. In his book Unequaled: Tips for Building a Successful Career Through Emotional Intelligence, Runde discussed the importance of skills like adaptability, collaboration, empathy, and relationship management; unfortunately, these skills are rarely discussed, yet alone practiced, in business curriculum, especially in technical majors like accounting, finance and economics. Teamwork, collaboration, leadership, critical thinking, innovation, and problem solving skills are in demand for all students regardless of future plans or academic major. Unfortunately, as Runde states, these so-called “soft skills” are lacking in a majority of students when they leave college. Businesses screen for things like cognitive skills (e.g., IQ), grade point averages and work ethic, but fail to realize that soft skills are the real differentiators. In fact, Goleman said that IQ only accounts for approximately 20% of individual success; the other 80% comes from other sources like EI.

Though Bharwaney says that when it comes to individual careers, “it is not technical skills or knowledge that is the gap between where they are and where they want to be. It is the understanding of how emotion in us and others affects everything we think and do.” Technical skills should be viewed as baseline competencies or threshold capabilities. Latif’s research, which focused on pharmacy curriculum, found cognitive and technical skills important and necessary, but were insufficient without EI, especially in a patient-focused paradigm. Esmond-Kiger’s, Tucker’s and Yost’s research found the accounting literature void of behavioral concepts, but discovered that accounting faculty should focus on the emotional aspects of the profession, especially when it comes to the early employment of graduates. EI helped provide the missing link between academic and professional success. Moncada’s and Sanders’ research published in The CPA Journal found that employability could increase when EI traits like emotional maturity and interpersonal skills were emphasized in the accounting curriculum. Because too few accounting programs were focusing on EI, it left the burden of EI training on employers, slowing the professional learning curve of college graduates. Colleges and universities seem to be experiencing hyper-emotionalism, as showcased through safe spaces, trigger warnings and micro-aggressions. When it comes to emotional support, faculty and administrators must advocate for emotional expressiveness rather than hyper-emotionalism. After all, emotions make great servants, but terrible masters! Academic institutions must support students, but must fully challenge them in an environment sacrosanct and absent of stigmatic processes and activities that perpetuate the marginalization of the mind. The only authentic safe space is a classroom promoting free speech and honest discourse. And the only trigger warning should be a syllabus statement that says “Placating of the mind stops at the door.” Faculty should never lower its standards for fear of offending students or making them angry, as if challenging the mind creates an academic dystopia. The reality is that the very nature of learning is unsettling and chaotic; it should not be viewed as utopian.

Producing solid technical experts is only part of the puzzle. If research has shown that 80% of individual success comes from sources other than IQ, “institutions of higher learning have a responsibility to train students beyond mere academics.” If life during college is important for life after college, one can deduce that “Academic life stretches well beyond the classroom, and personal and professional success is predicated on more than traditional IQ measurements (e. g., tests).” Academic institutions must focus on the cognitive, social, physical, and emotional bell-being of its students. By moving beyond technical skills and adopting a more holistic educational framework that integrates EI competencies into curriculum, classrooms, and teaching styles, academic institutions can help combat negative career effects and accelerate the learning curve between college and career, and meet the workforce readiness needs of tomorrow.