The Most Anxious Generation Goes to Work

Several former students and alumni emailed me a link to this provocative Wall Street Journal article - The Most Anxious Generation Goes to Work. I sincerely both appreciated and concurred with many of their comments, which could be readily summarized as: "These people obviously never went to CIMBA!”
Normally, a sincere, private “Thank You" would have been my response – keep your head down, don’t rock the academic boat, the success of our students is the clearest statement of our impact (and our greatest reward). But this time, with the ardent, relentless encouragement of several of those Alumns, I have found it difficult to remain passively on the sidelines. I am confident that many of you who have benefited from the CIMBA Experience are very likely saying: “Finally!”

Speaking to those ardent Alumns directly, you know I found the article to be yet another sad illustration of why the learning focus and philosophy in today’s business schools needs to be redirected -- IF we are truly committed to developing tomorrow’s leaders. But should there really be any question about it being an IF?
Technology is clearly making who you are far more important than what you know.
Critical thinking and behavior skills are increasingly trouncing knowledge skills at every turn in every field of business in every business day. In our journey, in our efforts to support the personal development of our students, we have placed (and will continue to place) our greatest attention on the "who you are" part. For this specific purpose, we began exploring the potential contributions of neuroscience in 1997; individual coaching in 2001; LIFE in 2005; the Neuroleadership Institute in 2007; mindfulness in 2008; and, personal development support technology in 2011.
It is a student-development focused process that continues today – and is our core basic belief.

The resistive struggles we have encountered along the way — and, sadly, continue to encounter in too many academic circles — are illustrative of the now antiquated learning focus that has dominated the Knowledge Worker Era of the recent past:

  • Soft-Skills Development: “We do axioms, theorems, formulas and principles here. We don’t get our hands dirty with that training stuff …” (SEC school, MBA Director)
  • Neuroscience: “Why are you putting so much effort into studying the brain? Isn’t it just another one of those management fads?” (Big-12 Business School Dean)
  • Coaches: “What would they teach, where would they publish, and how could they possibly get tenure?” (Big-10 Business School Dean) Mindfulness: “Would it work better if we all sang Kumbaya?” (Recognized Leadership Professor)
  • LIFE: Aren’t you concerned that the LIFE program will make students [who are working on overcoming unproductive, unhealthy personal and interpersonal habits] feel bad? (Management Professor)

Yet all of these learning resources are at the very core of important developmental needs of the Socially Sensitive Worker of the present era and will be even more so in the very near future.
How will those needs be met? Who will take the responsibility for their development? Or better, upon whom will this responsibility be placed or shifted by default? Will they be the most capable for delivering it?
Will it be too late or too early in the worker development process, and in either case will that make it prohibitively expensive or significantly more difficult to implement or both?

Early on we saw an important linkage between coaching and student mental well-being.
We encouraged schools to give it serious consideration as part of the curriculum, suggesting that to offer affordable coaching opportunities perhaps they could work with the psychology department (who would seem to be in need of “clients” to practice their trade).
We were told such cooperation “is too difficult, too complicated, and besides we don’t work well together".
Sadly, as the article makes clear, we will have that “coaching” now in b-schools but coming in through a back, arguably more negative, door in the form of mental health counseling — and I fear there will be just enough of it to check the box and “safely” pass them on to industry much as the article suggests.
Why can’t we make the effort to get in front of the problem by serving a broader base? Critical thinking and behavioral skills have risen to the top rung of the development-needs ladder in virtually every industry.
What if coaching benefited all students and also served to moderate the mental well-being crisis we are now facing? Would that possibly make the difference in decisions to coach or not to coach?

The article talks about the concept of psychological safety in the workplace as if it were some new thing.
Developed in 2005, LIFE is intended to create an environment of psychological safety — so that participants can feel and experience what it really is, not read/study about it in a book or hear about it from a professor or trainer. It lets participants touch those very concerns at the center of the WSJ article — the fears, anxieties, resentments, distresses, shames, embarrassments that are seriously, needlessly holding them back. It allows them to explore the validity of those thoughts and feelings, with the most common personal discovery being that they are completely false, brain-generated, mindless, dateless assumptions about how they view themselves and how others view them.
How can we pretend to effectively address these issues through a book or an instructor when we have known for more than 5 decades that applying a technical solution (knowledge) to an adaptive problem (here in the article, managing anxiety) does not lead to behavior change? And never will.

As both b-schools and industry travel down this unidimensional, knowledge-based, technical solution pathway without purposeful behavior-change work, they will continue to get stuck in a loop of initiative, priority, fatigue, and irrelevance. Rinse and repeat. If it weren’t for the fact that we are talking about student health and well-being, tomorrow’s leaders and future work colleagues, it might be easier to turn my back, stay in the lab, focus on our students, and wish them good luck with that antiquated learning focus.
Isn’t it finally time to seriously consider the extent to which our mental well-being issues are the unfortunate consequence of a dearth of serious, purposeful personal development efforts focused on behavioral change in support of “who you are”?
Of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and artificial environments where feeling bad can be avoided and personal growth and development stymied, stunted, disregarded, or simply ignored?
How long can we continue to credibly pretend it is not fundamentally important to success in all domains of life?

Even if we were to completely reject the idea that a relationship exists between student mental well-being and personal development efforts, the current learning emphasis is heavily placed on training our young people on how to process words, numbers, and symbols.
Those skills were exactly what WAS needed in the Knowledge Worker Era of the recent past. But in this, the Socially Sensitive Worker Era, it is merely preparing them to be replaced by a computer, robot, or machine. The workplace of this new dawning era is demanding those most deeply, essentially human abilities, the skills of human interaction, empathy, and forming productive social relationships.
Doesn’t restricting or avoiding personal development efforts contradict common sense? Could a partial answer be that such a radical revision in learning thought and emphasis will not likely come easily, especially to institutions whose own structure or status might be endangered?
Is it fair to ask whether or not our teaching and training resources, technologies, and philosophies are keeping up with the rate of change so evident in today's work environment? Or failing to recognize the truly most valuable skills to our organizations and communities?
Within academia, why do we continue to believe that putting students into teams and "experiential learning opportunities” without behavioral coaching and reflective sensemaking is going to somehow magically resolve unproductive, uncreative, and unhealthy personal and interpersonal behavioral habits? Within industry, why do we continue to underfund HR initiatives in this direction, forcing them into a "check-the- box" mentality rather than a "did-it-work" mentality?
And who is suffering most from these blind-eyed, deaf-eared approaches to learning and development? The list is long ….

Dr. Al H. Ringleb
Founder and President of CIMBA Italy