Marriage from hell
At the dawn of the digital age, well before the 1995 publication of Daniel Goleman’s ground-breaking Emotional Intelligence, the US author John Naisbitt foresaw complications. His 1988 Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives, predicted the inevitable rise of Artificial Intelligence and urged a counter-balancing union with its emotional counterpart. Megatrends was a futurist tsunami. Dominating the NYT Best Seller List for two years and published in over 50 countries, it became the forecaster’s bible.
Naisbitt’s visionary ideal, however, proved less a marriage of convenience and more the kind of insect kingdom arrangement where mate eats mate after coupling. It no time, intelligence of the artificial kind set about devouring its emotional namesake.
According to Naisbitt, High Tech should promote High Touch, in the sense that High Touch jobs would likely be those least affected and most in demand in the face of expanding AI and ever-expanding Tech. Fast forward and this has proven true. But unfortunately, while High Touch jobs might be in the ascendancy, High Touch skills have been tragically eroded. And it is digital culture that has been responsible for undermining these.
Back in the charts, just when…
Emotional Intelligence – or Emotional Quotient if you prefer – is now a natural catch-all label to cover a range of soft skills. Whilst the concept never died, like the Queen back catalogue buoyed by a Freddie Mercury biopic, EI has recently been seeing its own resurgence on the HR charts. Ironically, at a time when its fundamentals, already undermined, are collapsing from within.
Digital culture shapes the prevailing mindset of the majority of employees and new hires and has forced paradigm-setting changes on communication and interaction.
A 2017 major LinkedIn survey is powerful evidence of the extent of the attrition. The two thousand business leaders surveyed identified communication, collaboration, and leadership as representing the most significant skills gaps in new hires. Soft skill attributes that are the essential components of Emotional Intelligence. Digital culture is the saturation of personal and professional life by Tech and pervasive information. It is the disruption and creative destruction subsequently applied to business models, organizational cultures and HR directions and expectations. Digital culture shapes the prevailing mindset of the majority of employees and new hires and has forced paradigm-setting changes on communication and interaction.
Communication is basic to EI. Listening, intuiting, reading tacit cues, anticipating the interests of the other party and sensitively articulating your own – these are soft skills that have always been at the core of what it means to be effective in leadership and management… even effective as a human.
Communication skills don’t improve on their own. Their natural direction is backwards. And the digital culture encourages this, by expanding the range of communication process options. In theory, the more options the greater the quality of communication. In practice, the opposite applies. New technological choices increase the distortion not the quality of communication. For all their numerous benefits in other ways, email and text are obvious examples. The English novelist and playwright John Boynton Priestley pointed this out more than seventy years ago, with respect to television, in what became known as Priestley’s Paradox.
Where’s the empathy?
It even warps non-conflict situations like mutual problem solving or situations of honest misunderstanding, by manufacturing disputes that didn’t need to exist and now need to be reconciled.
EI, in corporate short-hand style, is frequently aligned with empathy – which entails collaboration. And it’s in this critical organizational requirement that the most damaging influence of digital culture shows itself. The digital culture, in any social media platform, delights in a zero-sum view of the world. Far from collaboration with others, it drives competition and envy. It corrupts conflict-based transactions, by white-anting the more productive and cooperative “bigger pie” mindset and encouraging avoidance where possible, and a “win at all costs” mentality when not. It even warps non-conflict situations like mutual problem solving or situations of honest misunderstanding, by manufacturing disputes that didn’t need to exist and now need to be reconciled.
If we imagine a hypothetical continuum of harmony, running from one extreme of absolute conflict to the other extreme of absolute cooperation, the influence of digital culture on collaboration has been a wholesale shift of workplace practice and tendency towards the “conflict” end.
All at the wrong time
Emotional intelligence encourages transformational leadership. This is intuitively obvious, and research demonstrates a high correlation between the two. A skills gap in leadership qualities and competencies, as sharply illustrated by the LinkedIn study and others, sounds an ominous note for organizations. The leaders of tomorrow are a company’s very future. Theirs is the responsibility for the direction that will drive the transformations to come – not yet recognized but inevitable in an era of remorseless disruption.
The value and durability of EI, as both a predictive and guiding tool, is well established. However, unlike the Queen revival and Freddie’s legacy, EI, enveloped in a digital culture battles to successfully follow the comeback script. Ironies abound in the digital area, but the greatest is that the digitally-eroded skills and capabilities of Emotional Intelligence are disappearing at the time when other digital developments have created their most urgent need and opportunity. It will need fast organizational footwork to catch up.
- Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Bantam Books, 1995.
- John Naisbitt, Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives, Grand Central Publishing, 1988.
- “Google vs. Google: How Nonstop Political Arguments Rule Its Workplace”, The Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2018.
- Evan Mitchell and Brian Mitchell, “Rage against the machine”, The Australian, The Deal, April 2018.
- Christensen Clayton, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Harvard Business Review Press, 1997.
- Elena Douglas, “The soft skills gap,” The Australian, The Deal, August 2018.
Whether by extraction or by profession, I will focus on the most humanistic and “emotional” aspect of the issue. That is on the interesting focus on the person that the new dynamics bring with them.
I am convinced that it is here that the link between the potential to have a careful emotional intelligence and the new transformation processes lies. A bond that must make us partakers of the birth of a new sensibility that I believe can represent the antidote to the doubt that, digital accelerating and facilitating communication processes, can bring with it a strong “mechanization” of the processes. A new awareness that represents a factor of evolution of transversal competences in the first place, of those figures that perform the role of connector between the needs of external change and the core business of the company.
Very much appreciate the post raising the issue of empathy (among others). My work is almost 100% online, I can’t begin to describe the alarming (in my opinion) facet where many seem so removed from others that at times I’ve observed some pretty bad behaviour towards other people, in great part resulting from the lack of empathy that some aspects digital culture negatively shape. I think the “gap” goes beyond the corporate umbrella, in that coaches, educators, et al, could be better positioned to work with people before hitting the job market. It’s just my opinion, but I really thing this (EI development) should be a focus within our school systems. Our society, I think, is is greater need of good leadership, more than ever before, and EI development is arguable one of the most critical building blocks towards good leadership.
Roger, as one who works largely from my home office, I empathize with your situation. The problem with trying to expand the school syllabus is that, with their focus so much on how to harness the digital culture, there’s little chance of time or emphasis being placed on the intrinsic damage that culture is doing – albeit in narrow and very specific ways. Still, the digital culture continues to unleash unintended consequences that are most insidious for being counter-intuitive (the likes, for instance, of Priestley’s Paradox – as communication-enabling tech increases, quality of communication declines…)
“Emotional intelligence encourages transformational leadership. This is intuitively obvious, and research demonstrates a high correlation between the two. A skills gap in leadership qualities and competencies, as sharply illustrated by the LinkedIn study and others, sounds an ominous note for organizations.” Well said. As an executive coach specializing in EI, I work with leaders to develop those soft skill gaps to ensure greater engagement and performance from their employees.
Thanks for your comment, Melinda. With so much HR focus on Talent Development these days, it would be as well to look at the erosion of specific skills that are vital to optimizing collaborative and communication abilities and nurturing leadership skills in employees. Cheers.