“But talk to any frustrated employee and you will hear a different story. It’s a story of what behavior seems to be rewarded in the workplace, and it’s not the traditional skills highlighted in articles online.” - Mary Faulkner

You’ve probably seen a lot of articles talking about how good talent is hard to find because of this thing called the “skills gap.” The concept has been around a long time – learning and organizational development professionals use it regularly to inform development work for people. Loosely defined in that context, the skills gap is the distance between where you currently are and where you want to be. Identify that gap, find some helpful learning interventions, and voila! You’re ready for the next level.

In the recruiting game, the definition is similar. There are the skills employers are looking for, and then there are the skills applicants actually have. The inability to find applicants with the “right” skills is blamed on that skills gap. It’s nothing new – the Harvard Business Review had a nice article on it back in 2014. And that article even traced the concept back before the recession.

Recently, the skills gap has resurrected discussion around the need to engage businesses in education again: Please, oh great and wise businessperson, what skills should we be teaching our eager young minds to be ready to work in the “real world”? Inevitably the concepts of analytics, statistics, critical thinking, finance all come into play. Technical skills specific to a certain industry play a strong role (think sustainability, AI, robotics). Every once in awhile someone throws out emotional intelligence as a show that they are being progressive in their thinking about leadership. This entails all manner of activities around collaboration, mediation, teamwork, and consensus-building. Whatever you call the skills, though, they are almost always linked to business acumen, and it’s almost always bottom line-focused.
photo of Mary Faulkner, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.
And these skills ARE good skills to have. Necessary skills. I wish everyone would learn them. And if these were the skills that businesses reward within their ranks, I would believe that this would help narrow the skills gap.

But talk to any frustrated employee and you will hear a different story. It’s a story of what behavior seems to be rewarded in the workplace, and it’s not the traditional skills highlighted in articles online. These skills are more nefarious in nature, yet they seem necessary to get ahead in Corporate America.

The real skills gap employees who want to get ahead seem to be facing are the skills around political manipulation, network leverage, title bias, and “fresh eyes” syndrome (they’re new, so they are smarter). Too many highly skilled, highly motivated, and high potential middle managers are being shut out of top level jobs within their organizations because they can’t seem to get the visibility they need with the right people. Or their managers are talent hoarders who take all the credit for the work being done. Or the organization has done a poor job providing them with opportunities to expand their skill set, resulting in a pigeon-holed employee whose only chance to get ahead is to leave.

Does this sound familiar to you? More importantly, does this sound familiar to your employees?

Unless you’re honest about the skills that you reward in your organization, your employees will see past any career development mumbo jumbo you try to convey. You may tell your employees you value their contribution, but if you keep hiring externally, what message does that send? You may claim you have values and reward good behavior, but when leaders who can’t lead are allowed to stay in place (and are even promoted), what behaviors are you really rewarding?

The reality is most employees are not dumb. They see what “skills” are being hired in and allowed to propagate in your organization, so when you give them feedback that they need to work on their visibility or technical knowledge, they don’t really believe you. Because based on who you’re hiring and promoting, the real skills they should be working on apparently are bullying, political maneuvering, and delegating the real work to people who make less than you but then taking the credit.

If this post makes you angry, maybe it’s because it hits too close to home. If this sounds like what’s happening in your organization, be the leader of the movement that says, “No more.” Stand up to your peers who act like jerks. Challenge leaders who think it’s okay to bulldoze their way through a team meeting. Demand that all meetings have agendas and that you stick to them. Insist on common decency in the workplace.

Until we do that, the so-called “skills gap” will remain, and good people will be left behind…which means really, they’re going to leave your organization. And then you’ll have a real skills gap.

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