“Empathy is the critical 21st Century skill” – reports Geoff Colvin in his recent article “Humans are Underrated” in Fortune magazine
(Aug 1 2015)

As more and more work is taken over by machines including computers and robots, social interaction and relationships assume even more importance, Colvin’s article reminds us that “we are social beings, hard-wired from our evolutionary past to equate personal relationships with survival”. This means that there is a fundamental human drive to collaborate and build relationships. Machines cannot (yet, anyway) empathise, listen and respond to our verbal or non-verbal behaviour, or recognise each of our unique qualities or problems – for example, whilst a robot can perform surgical procedures, the patient cannot talk to the robot and receive advice or reassurance; a robot can select medicines for the pharmacist, but it still requires the very human skills of checking accuracy and where necessary speaking to the customer about their drugs; and as yet there is no computer that can help resolve an argument with a colleague.

There is a wealth of other evidence lending further weight to the arguments in Colvin’s article that he doesn’t include but is all too familiar to organisational psychologists. For example, Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence (EI) in the ‘90s was one such reminder that it is not enough for leaders to have high IQ; to be really effective at motivating people they must have high EQ as well – and four types, according to Salovey and Mayer’s concept of emotional intelligence:

  1. Perceiving emotions
  2. Using emotions
  3. Understanding emotions
  4. Managing emotions

The predictive validity of emotional intelligence has been the subject of much debate, but if empathy really is the core skill for the 21st century then the concept of EQ comes back into its own. We also know from the extensive research on leadership and management derailment by Robert Hogan and others that senior people do not hit the buffers because they lack technical know-how – they fail because they do not form good relationships with others or they behave in ways that alienate or disrupt their colleagues and organisations. Thus derailers are largely interpersonal rather than technical. Witness any number of politicians and bankers in recent times whose downfall is not what they know but what they are like. My own extensive work with doctors who run into problems at work has made it clear that even the most technically brilliant doctors sabotage their entire career because of character flaws and behaviour that puts patient safety at risk.

The importance of human skills is the focus of Jim Collins’ classic book “Build to Last”. Companies who outperform their competitors on share price do so not because they are at the forefront of technology (although this obviously helps – witness Apple and Microsoft) but because their employees rate the organisation as a great place to work and their increased engagement provides a significant boost to their productivity. It is still the case that people join an organisation but leave a manager – further evidence that the human side of the managerial relationship remains fundamental to retaining people and bringing out the best in them.

One of this centuries greatest technological advances (arguably) is the Smartphone. Yet who cannot be worried by the effect that Smartphones are having on human interaction? There has been a plethora of blogs and articles about the disruptive effect that electronic handheld devices can have on human relationships – I defy anyone to say that they haven’t interrupted a meal or an intimate conversation by answering or sending a text or message on Facebook. Normal human interaction is punctuated by silence and inactivity – however, it seems we’ve lost our tolerance for this and in the endless quest for stimulation, when there’s a break in the conversation, out comes the Smartphone and our index finger goes into overdrive. Baroness Susan Greenfield was originally scorned for suggesting that the development of childrens’ brains will be altered adversely by the effects of so much interacting with technology – more recently, her predictions are much more widely accepted and borne out.

The article in Fortune provides anecdotes of American organisations who are taking this matter so seriously that they are training all employees and contractors in empathy and relationship building. Hurrah! What took them so long? But still they are to be commended for doing so. Where are the British examples of this? Even the NHS, following the unspeakable scandal of Mid Staffordshire, has had to re-establish compassion as a core value for all its’ employees and organisations. In the maelstrom of technological advances and financial pressures, basic human values and relationships got lost and are having to be re-discovered.

What are you doing in your organisation to keep the human side alive?

Dr Jenny King is an Occupational Psychologist and Executive Coach working with leaders in healthcare and business to help them bring out the best in people at work.

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Acknowledgement: geoffrey_colvin@fortune.com