The Dark Side of Reskilling and a Potential Solution

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There are many cogent and convincing arguments for reskilling. Many authorities believe that this is the mainstay of the future of work, or a real way to upgrade the future of low wage earners. Others argue that reskilling is also a tool to empower employees, or a way to prepare the workforce of the future. While all of these arguments make sense, they also have a dark side. They obscure the fact that humans are not circus animals, and that circus animals don’t work because they want or need a job. Though we all appreciate acquiring skills to make a living, making someone good at serving you is a double-edged sword. At best, it’s a dubious way to lead and akin to being a ringmaster or slave owner.

Ringmaster leadership: You might be clued-in to the questionable altruism behind “reskilling” and “ringmaster leadership” when you hear people at the tail-end of their careers complain that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. When applied to humans, the dark shadows of “training”, “reskilling”, and “upskilling” begin to emerge. Eventually, these words and idioms may make their way into what I call “the slavery lexicon”, and they lead people away from their own power and autonomy and toward a more masochistic, dependent, and disempowered way of being as well.

Altruistic or self-serving? There is something dehumanizing about talking about “reskilling”, as if the practical advantages of learning something new in order to retain a job outweigh the human desire for choice, inspiration, agency, self-driven learning and independence. Granted, psychologically speaking, humans have an ambivalent and complicated relationship with masochism and surrender, and we are horrendously prone to self-betrayal. Yet, this is all the more reason for pause. Teaching someone to be a good slave so that they can keep on earning a living, or reprogramming people like robots so that they can do what needs to get done is a questionable form of altruism.

Burnout: When leaders focus on “skills” or “jobs”at the expense of what is human, or when leadership gurus point out the simple practicality of people needing to learn new skills, it reinforces a power dynamic and ignores the resentment that grows. This attitude is what grows the cynicism in burnout even when it helps people become more effective. And it is bound to eventually kill off intrinsic motivation as well.

The power of choice: One potential approach to this dilemma of needing to stay relevant while also honoring agency and other human attributes may be derived from self-determination theory (SDT). SDT is a well-studied theory of how human beings can stay motivated. The key ideas are that we can remain intrinsically motivated by feeling competent, autonomous, and socially-related. The difference between the competence gained by reskilling and that of SDT is that when you choose what you want to learn, you feel more motivated.

A recent study in July 2020 demonstrated that when people are satisfied with their autonomy, they have greater levels of well-being and motivation. And businesses prospered too, in that there was a significant improvement in key performance indicators, and decreases in employee absenteeism as well.

Implementing SDT for reskilling: Rather than falling for ringmaster leadership and inadvertently dehumanizing people even more, at a time when the yearning for human connection could never be greater, leaders might implement some basic elements of humanized leadership by rethinking reskilling. To start, they could ask questions using the following framework described by the mnemonic AUDIT:

Autonomy: How do I provide an environment of choice?
Understanding: Do I understand what my employee/team needs?
Delegate: Can a machine do this better?
Intimacy: How do I get real (e.g. about the downsides of reskilling)?
Transformation: What would make this training transformative?

While this framework wil not solve all of the problems associated with reskilling, it will most likely humanize the training solution to elevate it to the inspired reality in which people prefer to live.

Harvard-trained Psychiatrist. Tech entrepreneur. Brain Researcher. Executive Coac. Author: Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, King T and the Gamma Troupe .

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