Humanity: Our Best Competitive Advantage in the Workplace

“Computers don’t have feelings, but people do. Precious few of us will differentiate ourselves in the marketplace by coming up with the next big technological advance. We’ll do it by becoming more wholly human.”

Earlier this week, I flew from New York to Boston and took off a full day to see a doctor about a medical condition I have. I went to these lengths because I understood him to be perhaps the world’s expert in this particular syndrome.

Obviously, his reputation influenced my decision to see him, but what ultimately affected me as much as his technical knowledge was the way he treated me, meaning his human skills. I knew he was incredibly busy – it took two months to get an appointment – but he arrived to see me in the exam room exactly on time.

He was open and direct, and he seemed genuinely interested not just in my medical issue, but also its effect on the quality of my life. From his questions, I could tell he had already carefully studied my case. He sat with me for a full hour, listened carefully to my concerns and patiently answered every question I had. He offered a clear, compelling plan for what to do next. By the time I arrived at home, he had sent me an email summarizing his findings and thanking me for coming to see him.

How often have you had an experience like that with a doctor, or with any service provider for that matter? And how important is the human dimension?

We live in a world of ever-increasing convenience and easily accessible expertise made possible by vast and staggering advances in technology, but ever-decreasing in-person, one-to-one interaction with human beings. The superstars of our age are the engineers who write brilliant code and the entrepreneurs who build the companies that provide us ever-smarter phones, access to infinite information and social networks, Internet-mediated services such as Uber and Airbnb and every imaginable product delivered to our homes with the push of a button.

But a funny thing has happened with all this innovation. The more advances we make in technology, the less we human beings seem to matter. That’s the story Geoff Colvin takes on in his deceptively breezy but profound new book “Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will.”

Mr. Colvin’s premise is at once sobering and scary, but it’s also hopeful and challenging. He makes a persuasive case that computers are rapidly getting better – often far better — than humans are in dozens of areas.

Computers long ago automated all kinds of mass production, but they can now also take on far more complex tasks, including analyzing legal cases, providing financial advice, diagnosing illnesses, driving cars and even fighting wars, with battlefield robots and drones. “Affective” computing makes it possible for these machines to understand human emotions and measure levels of stress, often better than we can ourselves.

More transformative still, Mr. Colvin writes, computing power doubles every two years, meaning that it will increase by a factor of a million in just 40 years. It’s impossible to imagine the impact.

Ironically, the extraordinary technical and analytical skills that led to these breakthroughs actually make such skills less important in the job market going forward. Plainly, brilliant engineers will continue to push the envelope in technology, but that means most of us have to find other ways to make a living.

Oxford Economics, a research firm, recently reported that the skills employers said they would need more of in the next five to 10 years were not so much analytic and technical ones as they were “relationship building, teaming, co-creativity, brainstorming, cultural sensitivity and ability to manage diverse employees“– the skills, Mr. Colvin said, of “social interaction.”

In a Darwinian corporate world, where people are fungible, strength and dominance have been keys to prevailing. Fear has been a primary motivator. In a more social, complex and connected world, Mr. Colvin writes, individuals and their organizations will build competitive advantage through qualities such as empathy, care, attunement, self-awareness and even generosity.

Computers don’t have feelings, but people do. Precious few of us will differentiate ourselves in the marketplace by coming up with the next big technological advance. We’ll do it, Mr. Colvin says – and I couldn’t agree more — by becoming more wholly human. That means being more able to understand and influence how we feel, and how others feel, because how people feel profoundly influences how they perform.

Companies, in turn, need to be nurturing in employees a set of qualities and capacities that haven’t been valued much in the workplace before. It’s about a move from the focus on “what” to “how,” from an orientation to the external world to one that includes our internal experience and from getting more out of people to investing more in them, so they’re more energized to bring the best of themselves to work.

That’s a sea change, but it’s also a key to competitive advantage for any company.

The more valued, appreciated, cared for and taken care of we feel, the more secure and trusting we become, the less preoccupied by fear, and the more likely we are to generate our highest value.

This is true, Mr. Colvin writes, even in the military. “In future wars,” he quotes Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter as saying, “winning will mean having a victory that is widely accepted, including by the defeated. So you won’t win by mowing down millions of people. You’ll win by having people at the front edge who have human skills.”

As we tell our clients, leaders in the workplace must become not just chief executive officers, but also chief energy officers, because their energy – and emotions – are so contagious, for better or for worse.

The doctor I visited last week in Boston played both those “C.E.O.” roles. He inspired my confidence through his knowledge and competence. He made me feel valued and cared for by his empathy and attunement. It doesn’t get better than that.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tony Schwartz is the CEO and founder of The Energy Project, a consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations solve intractable problems and add more value in the world by widening their world view. Tony is considered one of the world’s thought leaders around sustainable high performance and building more human workplaces. He began his career as a journalist and has been a reporter for the New York Times, a writer for Newsweek and a contributor to publications such as New York, Esquire, Vanity Fair and Fast Company. Since founding The Energy Project in 2003, Tony has written for extensively for the Harvard Business Review. He has also written the Life@Work column in the New York Times. Tony is also the author of several books, including The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time (with Jim Loehr), which spent 28 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. 

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