Humans are Underrated

“The new high-value skills are instead part of our deepest nature, the abilities that literally define us as humans: sensing the thoughts and feelings of others, working productively in groups, building relationships, solving problems together, expressing ourselves with greater power than logic can ever achieve.”

- Humans are Underrated, page 4

Over the last century, education has been the mainspring of flourishing economies. The knowledge worker was most valued. As technology becomes more powerful, computers can do many tasks previously done by knowledge workers more efficiently, and education is not as valued as it once was. The nature of our work is changing, and the skills the economy thrives on are changing. In Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will, Geoff Colvin shows how social skills are becoming the most powerful force in business. The new relationship worker will be the most valuable asset in the new economy.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Social sensitivity is becoming our most valued commodity

"As the two large technology trends of our era combine, as technology takes over more of our work while simultaneously changing us and the way we relate to one another, the people who master the human abilities that are fading all around us will be the most valuable people in the world."
- Humans are Underrated, page 67

In our changing world, we increasingly rely on computers to retrieve facts, make calculations and perform tasks. Sometimes we still insist on human interaction. Our brains are hardwired to relate to people, and we need to feel understood—a computer does not empathize. We still need human creativity. As things change, we often don’t know what the problem is, and without a defined problem people must innovate to define both problems and solutions. Human abilities are indispensable.

Technology has become ubiquitous in the workplace. Physical and mental work is rapidly being done more productively by computers. Not only can computers replace factory workers and office workers, in some cases, they can replace doctors and lawyers, and even self-driving trucks can replace truck drivers. Our work is evolving to become less routine and repetitive, menial jobs are disappearing, and the complex social interactions the human brain evolved to perform, the attributes that caused the human race to flourish, are a significant advantage.  

As technology expands, it becomes efficient to connect remotely. There are countless examples; we have more opportunities to work from home, we choose to connect with a computer instead of a person, we send texts instead of calling. It is efficient, but our brains evolved to function best in face-to-face interaction. We may seem vulnerable in a personal encounter, but an electronic connection may feel like there was no connection at all. Worse is that our human skills atrophy and our ability to sense the emotions, motives, fears, and needs of others, fades. Those with strong ability to empathize become less common and more valuable in the workplace.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Teams thrive working face-to-face

"The world is doing ever more of its work in teams, and we humans have been exquisitely fine-tuned over the millennia to work together in this way. … We form, exchange, improve, accept, and reject ideas, and we improve our collective performance, through deeply human processes that may happen without our even knowing it."
- Humans are Underrated, page 140

Humans evolved in groups that benefit all members. Groups offered protection, pooling of resources, and efficiency in hunting and gathering. Effective group dynamics involve helping others, sharing knowledge, and making connections without expecting something in return. Our brains reward us with opioids when we work together, not for self-interest but the benefit of others. When we interact face-to-face our brains synchronize, but when we talk back to back they don’t. Companies that have ensured their employees have freedom to interact face-to-face have seen boosts in productivity.

Teams that work face-to-face have a better understanding of each other and generate more diverse ideas. Creativity is at its peak in groups where people spend time both outside the group gathering ideas and inside the group exchanging ideas. The team needs to have a healthy trusting relationship to exchange ideas freely, and it is empathy that binds people and creates cohesive groups.

When team members don’t work face-to-face, we lose the advantages that evolution gave us. Since technology has replaced more of our face-to-face interaction, narcissism has increased, and empathy has decreased. Narcissism creates a toxic work environment where people focus on personal gain and minimize their contributions. In this environment trust and creativity shut down, we compete against our teammates and the organization declines.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Win with self-motivation and focus on others

"In their lab experiments and studies of organizations, people who are other-focused as well as intrinsically motivated produce the most creative and useful ideas. Being other-focused means having a prosocial orientation, a fundamental wish to help others. It’s not surprising people with those traits come up with ideas that will be useful to others, and when combined with intrinsic motivation, it’s a winning package."
- Humans are Underrated, page 175

To be intrinsically motivated we need to be engaged in the work we do. Much of the work we have done for more than 100 years has involved acquiring knowledge or skills and honing them to do the same thing accurately and repetitively. I think it is wonderful we can give that up to computers. It is hard to stay engaged in mundane work when our brains have evolved to thrive when we engage with others, share ideas, and explore. The task then becomes to seek what genuinely interests us.

A prosocial orientation means we can empathize with others. When we listen to and understand the thoughts and feelings of others and respond with comfort, support, and truth, it creates a bond of trust. Others have a reciprocal response, and you learn to understand one another and communicate. Our ideas mingle, and the most useful solutions materialize. When we combine our inborn drive and focus on how we can benefit others, there is a synergy, and our work achieves its highest value.

We are all born with the ability to develop social sensitivity. It is a skill we can learn or learn to do better. Our jobs are changing; technology is replacing education and skilled labor. Humans still need to feel understood, and for some interactions we will only accept a person. Reliance on technology is reducing social connection. Those with prized social skills are becoming scarce, and in our transforming world, we need them. Those who have social expertise will become the most valued in the workplace and part of the most innovative teams and productive organizations. Their skills will be valued because they are uniquely human.

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Ingrid Urgolites

ABOUT Ingrid Urgolites

I work for Citigroup in operations. I have a varied background, and I enjoy service-oriented work. In addition to business, I have a keen interest in food and nutrition, and I have been vegetarian or vegan my whole life...
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