A future filled with automated robots inspires both optimism and anxiety. According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of Americans surveyed said they were worried about the consequences of widespread artificial intelligence. Up to 85 percent of survey respondents said they even favored limiting the use of workplace robots to only hazardous duties.
Another 62 percent said they’d be willing to pay extra to interact with a human customer service representative rather than a chatbot.
This research is important for entrepreneurs striving to thrive amid the fourth industrial revolution. Their focus? It’s on the future of labor, and related factors like the ubiquity and capability of machine learning, big data and autonomous systems.
But those same entrepreneurs should rest easy because, according to the consumers who will propel future economies, the human element is still distinctly valuable.
That’s not really shocking when you consider that the soft skills only humans can perform tend to have a huge impact on a company’s bottom line. At organizations with 100 employees or more, communication errors cost an average of $420,000 annually, according to Creative Communications and Training, Inc. So, knowing that even the most intelligent machines struggle with semantics, human professionals — not machines — are the ones likely to communicate and collaborate the most effectively.
More specifically, a study of science recruiters from Evolve revealed that the most in-demand skills are the ability to work cooperatively, flexibly and cohesively. These soft skills are ones that no robot in any form will ever excel at. They’re skills that will distinguish the most successful entrepreneurs as we all move further into the fourth industrial revolution.
In fact, humans will be essential in an automated world.
Soft skills have never received the professional credit they deserve. There’s always been an intense focus on technical skills, academic qualifications and professional achievements. The reason has less to do with the importance of these skills and more to do with their measurability. Certainly, soft skills are as important; they’re just harder to demonstrate.
Skills such as coding can be taught in the classroom and evaluated empirically. That’s exactly why they’ll be less relevant in an increasingly technical future. When everyone has the same technical skill sets, it will be soft skills that differentiate some from others.
I’ve personally observed how essential it is to possess emotional intelligence — meaning the capacity to experience, interpret and convey human emotions in productive ways. My background in starting up businesses has shown me that while rapid prototyping is great, the thing that really propels ventures forward is a function of human inputs.
Of these inputs, the most important skill — hard or soft — any professional can have is the ability to solve problems and overcome obstacles. One of my first startup experiences was developing Waterbabies. Our first product run had had a 70 percent defect rate, which is another way of saying it was a total disaster.
But after a lot of reflection, we recognized that the problem was not so much a lack of technical skills or advanced equipment as it was the fact that we had rushed to market with something we’d never done before.
I found that the key to getting around the issue was creative problem-solving and resiliency — both soft skills. I pulled together a team of chemists; traveled up and down the East Coast to find a solution; and assembled a recall team to go into stores, gather untested products, replace and return defects and so on.
Our persistence paid off. Waterbabies became one of the longest-selling doll brands ever.
Developing your softer side
The tricky thing about soft skills is that as important as they are, they’re notoriously hard to teach, measure or sometimes even define. My experience with entrepreneurs, however, has shown me that if you use the right approach, you can build a person’s character in a way that has a direct professional benefit. What I recommend:
- Take a look in the mirror. Self-awareness is a big part of what makes us human. Neuroimaging studies have shown that “thinking about ourselves, recognizing images of ourselves and reflecting on our thoughts and feelings — that is, different forms of self-awareness — all involve the cerebral cortex.”Other animals, like dogs and cats, lack this ability. That said, being biologically capable of self-awareness and actually practicing it are two different things.The first step in improving our self-awareness, then, is to understand honestly what we are good and bad at. That way, we can focus our efforts on turning weaknesses into strengths.Personally, I’m a classic Type A person. That makes me great at meeting quotas and deadlines but a lot less skilled at building productive relationships with teams. By practicing self-awareness, I’ve learned to identify my weakness for what it is; now, I consciously make an effort to give others the time and attention they deserve, even if my natural instinct is to charge forward with my own ideas.
- Put one foot in front of the other. Admitting our faults is easy — sometimes. Actually taking action to become better professionals is a lot harder. Just think of how much simpler it is to imagine going to the gym instead of actually completing a workout.I’ve found that creating an action plan that includes measurable goals and details on how to attain them is a powerful motivator. This is backed up by research from Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, who found that when people plan for specific goals, they can translate that planning to higher performance about 90 percent of the time.
According to Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, the best way to achieve your goals is to articulate them. “You can’t realize your goal if it’s not defined,” Weiner recently told the New York Times. “It sounds so simple, but it’s true. So the most important piece of advice I can give folks who are coming out of school, even people who’ve already begun their career, is to know what it is they ultimately want to accomplish.”
When we discover our long-term vision, we can produce the short-term incentive we need to jump-start our journey to achieving it.
- Keep your word. Entrepreneurs act as their own boss. That makes it very easy for them to admit their faults, start on their journey to improve and then drop the project a month later. I’m sure we have all struggled to follow through on things, considering that 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fall by the wayside.For me, making public declarations has helped me overcome this hurdle on more than one occasion. Instead of keeping plans private, I announce them to my peers. Knowing that they’re holding me accountable motivates me to act. And science backs this up: Robert Cialdini is a regents’ professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business. According to Cialdini, when you make public declarations, you’re actually more likely to follow through.
As humans, Cialdini has said, we want to maintain a reputation of honesty and consistency, so we tend to back up our promises with actions to avoid being seen as wishy-washy or erratic.
The upshot: The fourth industrial revolution is leading to radical shifts at a breakneck pace. Entrepreneurs cannot lose sight of what really makes their input valuable. It’s not their ability to implement and optimize machines. It’s their ability to integrate and accelerate teams of real, live, human people.