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What separates the humans from the robots?

I recently watched a year-old clip from “CBS This Morning” where anchors interviewed LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner. The interview was part of a series focusing on issues facing the American workforce. I played this particular clip several times because its message is powerful.

Weiner was talking about interpersonal skills and the power of empathy in the workplace, both of which are on the backburner for many companies.

“A lot of people are fixated on technology, and rightfully so,” Weiner said. “It’s an increasingly important part of most companies and how they do business.”

But Weiner said it’s the interpersonal skills – communication, reasoning, team coordination, customer service, business and sales development – that are increasingly hard to find. And Weiner’s not just speaking anecdotally as the CEO of a staff of more than 11,000. According to LinkedIn research, employers across 100 major U.S. cities reported the number one skill missing among workers is interpersonal or soft skills.

“Forty percent of employers in the U.S. are having a hard time finding employees with the skillsets they need,” Weiner said. “Interpersonal skills are soft skills anyone can develop and acquire.”

CBS This Morning anchor John Dickerson quipped back, “You say anyone can acquire these skills, but where do they acquire them?”

Ironically, Weiner said, you can pick up interpersonal skills online, through new websites and companies devoted to teaching the so-called “soft skills.”

Whether online or in person, the American job force demands interpersonal prowess, and now.

“We all need to do a better job of aligning the supply and the demand,” Weiner said, referencing a statistic from the U.S. Bureau of Labor that reported there are 6.35 million unemployed workers and 6.7 million job openings.

Montana data backs up Weiner’s assertions. According to the recently released workforce development survey from the Montana Chamber of Commerce, lack of interpersonal skills is a top concern for Montana business owners. A staggering 85 % of business owners surveyed would like to grow their companies in 2020, but report having trouble finding the skilled labor force to make that happen.

After reading the workforce survey and watching Weiner’s interview, I decided to delve a little deeper. I looked for as many definitions of “interpersonal skills” as I could find before bedtime. Here’s how Investopedia defines those intangible aptitudes: “Interpersonal skills are the qualities and behaviors a person uses to interact with others properly. In the business domain, the term refers to an employee’s ability to work well with others while performing their job. Strong interpersonal skills are a prerequisite for many positions in an organization.”

Can you work well with others? Can you play in the sandbox without stealing everyone’s toys or taking all the credit for the sandcastle?

Or maybe you think those interpersonal skills will soon be irrelevant. Won’t we all just be replaced by emotionless robots soon, you ask? I turned to speaker and author Ryan Jenkins for clues. Jenkins recently said in an article for Inc., “In the A.I.-abundant world of tomorrow, where technology will do much of the heavy lifting, a doctor’s ability to deliver compassion and empathy to a patient will become much more valuable. While the technical hard skills of doctors will remain important, their emotional intelligence will take on new significance.”

But that’s doctors. What about me, you’re asking? Jenkins continues:

“The Industrial Revolution required muscle from its workers. The Information Age traded muscle for mental capacity, which explains the rise of ‘knowledge workers.’ The future will require workers to be emotionally intelligent.”

Don’t think emotional intelligence can be cultivated? Let’s circle back to Weiner. He is an outspoken advocate of a style of management called compassionate leadership.

“It’s about taking the time to put yourself in another person’s shoes,” he says.

Weiner didn’t always lead that way though. He is the first to admit he used to be “intense” and didn’t always channel his passion kindly. In 2001, a journalist described Weiner’s leadership as “wielding his fierce intelligence as a blunt instrument”. 

That comment, along with other forces, led Weiner to re-evaluate his methods. He found help from the book “The Art of Happiness,” based on the 14th Dalai-Lama’s teaching on empathy and compassion. He also discovered the value of fun.

“It’s important that we laugh and have fun while we’re doing what we do,” Weiner says.

It’s the laughter, the interpersonal skills, and the compassion that have ushered in an era of rapid growth at LinkedIn and the favorable workplace ratings from employees to back it up. It’s emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills that give humans an edge over AI and make LinkedIn such a great place to work (example: Weiner gave his $14 million stock bonus back to his employees in 2016 and institutes regular team building days centered on fun and learning).

What Weiner, Jenkins and so many others are talking about now is not often the norm in a competitive workplace. Luckily, at the Better Business Bureau Northwest + Pacific, we have a CEO who is an empathetic leader. Though he steers a full ship, he remembers the small details about employees that sow big morale returns. He has a sense of humor when tackling problems. He espouses an “open door” policy and reiterates the need for honest company feedback, where no one fears the repercussions of speaking up. The culture at the BBBNW+P is, frankly, a large part of the reason I took the job. I truly have never worked for a kinder company (example: I got a dang care package for St. Patty’s Day, and I’m a remote worker!).

Empathy matters. Working alongside colleagues with outstanding interpersonal skills matters. It matters for longevity. It matters for company culture. It matters for consumers. And it matters for Montanans.

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Written by Hannah Stiff

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