What’s Missing in Higher Education?


Hayley Hesseln, PhD, B.Comm, CEC is the co-founder of EI ADVANTAGE, and is an Associate Professor at the University of Saskatchewan. 


Preparing students with the “soft skills” needed to succeed in the modern workplace is becoming more essential than ever, but are post-secondary institutions doing students a disservice by not developing attributes like Emotional Intelligence?


Today, EI ADVANTAGE co-founder Hayley Hesseln, PhD, B.Comm, CEC shares how her experiences in academia and as an Associate Professor at the University of Saskatchewan have influenced her understanding of the importance of “soft skills” like Emotional Intelligence, and what higher learning institutions can do to prepare the next generational workforce for success:


Early Beginnings


While doing my commerce degree, I was required to take finance, economics, accounting, and a slightly different class called OB – Organizational Behaviour.  


The course consisted of a series of case studies that focused on problems with staff: two secretaries not getting along, a dysfunctional team, toxic bosses, all resulting in high turnover and low productivity.  


Of course, as a naïve 19-year-old, I thought I had the answer. Fire them!  What could be simpler? Such behaviour just couldn’t be tolerated. Problems such as those drove me away from business and into a career doing research and teaching. I have since come a long way in my thinking and my understanding of why that class was probably the most important one I would ever take.


My Own Training


Having spent many years at university as a student, I have a reasonably good understanding of what classroom learning looks like.


While it’s true that many advances in teaching and learning have been made with a greater emphasis on improving the latter, many faculty still use the old “talking head” model whereby the professor lectures, students take notes and memorize material only to be regurgitated on an exam and subsequently forgotten.  


I excelled under this model because I am an extreme introvert and was too shy to engage in discussions or make presentations. Ultimately, I was not served well by this model. I wasn’t pushed to be uncomfortable or to hone the essential skills necessary for my chosen profession, let alone any other. Most of the courses were designed to give me technical information about theories, methods, and processes (except for OB of course). 


I was trained to think in the context of existing theories, and was expected to demonstrate how to apply them, and to synthesize information. What I was not trained to do was to enhance the so-called “soft skills.”

Higher Education Curricula


The Government of Canada now formally recognizes nine essential skills for success in the workplace. They are: numeracy, oral communication, working with others, continuous learning, reading text, writing, thinking, and document use. The list can be divided into two broad categories – technical skills such as numeracy and document use, and the softer skills such as working with others and continuous learning.  

What’s surprising about the list is that research now tells us that it is the softer skills that are lacking in the workplace, particularly among new graduates. The conclusion can only be that educational institutions are not providing sufficient opportunities or teaching methods to develop such skills.

Where We Need to Be Going


The softer skills will become increasingly more important as many jobs are automated. According to McKinsey and Company, “Social, emotional, and higher cognitive skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, and complex information processing, will also see growing demand.”  These types of skills are grounded in emotional intelligence, which is the capacity to recognize our own emotions as well as those of others’ and to modify our behaviour accordingly.  


It is imperative to start training these skills early at all levels of formal and informal education.  This will require a rethinking of what we teach and how we teach it necessitating vast changes to curricula. Businesses are already recognizing this need as evidenced by the growing demand for coaching and personal and professional development programs.


How Do We Get There?


My career has allowed me to see first-hand and from both perspectives (student and teacher) the essential skills needed to succeed in life at all stages.  Looking back over all my courses, it’s clear now that the easy ones to master were math and statistics, finance, accounting, and economics for example.


The more challenging had to do with relationships: working together, managing people, handling conflict, managing myself. The latter all has to do with emotional intelligence and the ability to recognize and adapt your beliefs, perceptions, and actions.  


It took 20 years of education before I was trained to be a coach and to use emotional intelligence in my own teaching and profession. In my opinion it’s 20 years overdue.


The soft skills are difficult skills to master but they are what enable us as individuals and society to not only function, but to thrive; to connect with each other in a way that builds trust, fosters respect, drives innovation, and promotes well-being.


In answer to the question, how do we get there? I suggest we begin by recognizing the importance of emotional intelligence and by building social and emotional learning into all of our education programs. And, if you’re already well into your career, I can safely say that it’s not too late to start learning.


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March 24, 2020

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