Psychology in Practice: Soft skills for hard decisions

@Gabriel Rodriguez

With today’s global jobs market not only volatile but perennially morphing, splintering and innovating, how can higher education institutions effectively tackle the enormous challenge of keeping up and producing graduates relevant to its needs? The answer, according to employers, is a greater focus on psychology in practice to develop soft skills.

A 2015 survey from the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that three out of five employers wanted a greater range of knowledge as well as specific skills from graduates. At the same time, while 57 percent of graduates believed themselves to be sufficiently creative and innovative, business leaders considered that just 25 percent of those entering work in fact were. The gap between presumption and reality is striking.

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And so we have to ask, which are these behavioral traits that graduates need to pursue and develop to achieve “emotional intelligence”?


Learning new ways of thinking and re-programming the brain to avoid falling into default responses is one route towards better decision making. In his book Mindware, Tools for Smart Thinking, Richard Nisbett suggests that we are so easily influenced by trivial factors that we don’t notice that we need to look at questions in different contexts. As we are so susceptible to social influences we don’t even see, we therefore need to create environments where better decisions can be taken.

It isn’t just external factors that can muddy the waters, either. Scott Rick of the University of Michigan’s Ross Business School suggests that the brain is hard-wired with the idea of ‘loss aversion’, whereby humans are twice as sensitive to avoiding loss as they are to accumulating gain. Throw in other factors widely considered to affect our decisions – mood, conditions, circumstances – and the brain inevitably begins to challenge itself.

Default behaviors can be just as damaging and even harder to control in the decision-making process. In Lee Newman’s experience, given that human behavior is erratic and unpredictable, the fact that so many of us resort unconsciously to default reactions rather than assessing a situation and responding accordingly means a huge amount of self-control is needed to break the cycle. Only once you have identified your own defaults, says Newman, can you begin to try to anticipate and override them.

Training yourself to overcome those hard-wired factors is therefore key. In the Scientific American, Alan G. Sanfey and Luke J. Chang talk of two systems at work in the decision-making process. ‘System 1’ is generally automatic and quickly proposes intuitive answers to problems as they arise, while ‘System 2’ is slow, conscious, rule-based and can also monitor the quality of the answer provided by System 1. If it’s convinced that our intuition is wrong, then it is capable of correcting or overriding the automatic judgments.  System 2 in this case is more rational and long-term, while System 1 is more concerned with the moment.


Following a series of studies led by American behavioral expert Andrew Hafenbrack, it was found that mindfulness – pausing to think only in the present moment – could play its part as a useful solution to recognizing your defaults and counteracting deep-rooted tendencies. Increasingly offered in the workplace by corporations from IBM to Google, mindfulness seeks to promote clarity of thought by the removal of external factors in the decision-making process. Hafenbrack’s research found that even a brief period of mindfulness can allow people to make more rational decisions by shutting out confusing ‘noise’ and considering only the information available in the present.

Nicole E. Reudy and Maurice E. Schweitzer discovered that an individual’s awareness of his or her present experience impacts ethical decision making. Writing in the Journal of Business Ethics, they say that “Individuals high in mindfulness report that they are more likely to act ethically, are more likely to value upholding ethical standards and are more likely to use a principled approach to ethical decision making.”

Whilst also an advocate of the practice, Natalia Karelaia, INSEAD assistant professor of Decision Sciences, does suggest caution. By neglecting some external factors, she says, important considerations may become overlooked, while there are the inherent time issues implied by a strategy that involves clearing the mind and meditation.

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Positive Leadership

While mindfulness stresses the importance of the individual, positive leadership is a more inclusive tool that takes elements of modern psychology and applies them to the workplace. By encouraging organizations to understand the behavior of their employees, rather than getting people to adapt to systems, the systems can adapt to them, reducing negative emotional waste.

According to Lee Newman, Dean of IE School of Human Sciences and Technology, “Positive leadership is about understanding the conditions I can put in place as a leader in which other people are going to perform at their peak and at their best.” Researchers at the Queens School of Business showed that disengaged workers in the US had 37 percent higher absenteeism rates. Returning to the core soft skills such as empathy and communication, which precisely the ingredients that foster a positive workplace, could provide a solution.

Creative Learning

Running contrary to the inflexible reputation of many higher educational institutions, when embraced and trusted, or even allowed to take risks, giving academics influence into the decision-making process of universities can make them more flexible. In 2010, Lee Newman was able to launch the Executive Master in Positive Leadership and Strategy at IE University with elements that included yoga and mindfulness at a time when they were still largely foreign concepts in graduate schools.

“In my second, third, and fourth year, we launched three master’s programs,” says Newman. “Find me another school that can do that. One of them, in market research and consumer behavior, was the biggest in the world by the second year. We launched degrees that became world-class very quickly.”

If the corporate world is looking to meet its human resources demands, then these are the kind of solutions that need to be explored. “I think people confuse creativity and innovation,” adds Newman. “There is some evidence that creativity can be learned, but some people are just naturally much more creative than others. Innovation, however, is a mindset that anybody can learn. “

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In the same way that single-faculty teaching is losing relevance to modern commercial demands, so rational thinking in business has become outmoded, with businesses more intent on disruptive technologies where success often demands passion and commitment.

Where the world-weary once talked of gleaning their formative experiences from the mystical ‘University of Life’, in our fast-moving times, the phrase assumes fresh and literal new meaning. Like IE University, today’s more progressive higher education institutions are increasingly concerned with a broadening of learning beyond the confinements of traditional faculties to produce graduates with a range of soft skills more capable of solving problems, blessed with greater powers of persuasion and better communication. Better prepared, in short, for life in and out of the boardroom.

**Written by: The Report Company