by Edward D. Hess, author of “Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization“
You know technology is advancing by the day. You may know that over the next 10 to 20 years, according to two experts, 66 percent of U.S. employees have a medium-to-high risk of being displaced by smart robots and machines powered by artificial intelligence. (Just read the study by University of Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne.) But here’s a twist you may not have considered: To hone the human strengths that will carry you through this tech tsunami, you first must conquer some very human failings.
Ironically, being human helps us and hurts us. We possess extraordinary abilities that machines can’t replicate, including the ability to ideate, create, emotionally engage, and empathize. But (here’s the irony!) to tap into these abilities when the tech tsunami hits, we’ll have to overcome our human nature.
Research in neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics has offered up an unflattering picture of the way we think and learn. While humans have the capacity to be highly efficient, fast, reflexive thinkers, our “autopilot” thinking isn’t very critical or innovative. Instead, it’s rather lazy and is hobbled by our egos, biases, and emotions. This is the humanness we must overcome to stay competitive.
Here are eight things you (and, if you’re a leader, your employees) need to do to “de-humanize” yourselves so you can think better, learn better, collaborate better, and emotionally engage better:
Put less stock in being right.
When we’re right, our egos (in other words, the views we have of ourselves) are reinforced and validated — and that feels good. So we instinctively seek out situations that validate our views of the world and of ourselves — and we selectively filter out information that contradicts what we “know” to be “right.” Problem is, none of this supports the cultivation of better thinking and learning.
Effective learning requires us to uncouple our egos from our beliefs by admitting that as humans, we’re wired to be suboptimal learners. In order to learn, we have to be willing to look closely at our mistakes and failures and to really listen to people who disagree with us. In other words, we have to be willing to be wrong! Overcoming the strength of our ego-defense systems requires deliberateness, mindfulness, management of our emotions, and quieting our ego — more on those things later!”
Overcome lazy thinking.
Believe it or not, it takes a disproportionate amount of energy to learn. Although the brain comprises only about 2.5 percent of our body weight, it generally uses 20 percent of the body’s energy. As a result, the human learning machine prefers to operate in a low gear — on autopilot — as much as possible to conserve energy. Nobel laureate and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman puts it this way: “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”
What this means is that no matter how intelligent or experienced you are, you probably aren’t doing your best thinking. Especially in situations with important consequences, you need to deliberately think about how you, well, think. Are you proceeding based on impressions, feelings, impulses, or a desire to protect your ego? Or are you unpacking and questioning assumptions, weighing alternatives, and digging deeper?
To start ‘strengthening’ your thinking, mentally rehearse each upcoming day by thinking about what instances, meetings, occurrences, decisions, and events may need higher-level thinking. Then in the evening, take 15 minutes and replay the day with an eye to identifying situations in which your lazy thinking may have gotten you in trouble. Over time, you’ll be able to create a checklist of the types of issues, problems, or situations that require deliberate thinking. And forewarned really is forearmed.
Stop being so judgmental.
Our human drive to be right, combined with our predisposition toward lazy thinking, causes us to be judgmental of other people and situations. We do it in work and in life all the time: That’s a terrible idea. He’s an idiot. She didn’t try hard enough. I know better. And so on. The problem is, judgments like these set the stage for division, resentment, and roadblocks, not collaboration, dialogue, and progress.
Suspending judgment has always been a particular challenge for me. My mind always wants to formulate a response or counterattack instead of really listening to what the other person is saying. (Maybe yours is the same way!) I have to remind myself that interactions with others are not guerilla warfare; nor are they tools to help me confirm what I already believe. They are stress tests to help me evaluate and — if necessary — change what I believe.
Get less rigid.
Throughout history, rigid processes and procedures were (usually) a good thing for humanity. Do Action X and Action Y, and get Result Z, which provides comfort, shelter, sustenance, or some other desirable outcome. But in today’s rapidly changing world, doing things the way they’ve always been done is a recipe for obsolescence. We humans will have to start fixing things before they’re broken in order to stay relevant.
It’s okay to have preferred methods and procedures, but it’s equally important to realize that risk, creativity, and breaking new ground are all part of the learning process. To set yourself and your organization on the path to becoming more adaptable, I suggest following Intuit’s example by consciously choosing to bury the ‘modern day Caesar’—the kind of boss who dictates exactly how progress should and shouldn’t unfold. Instead, encourage creativity and self-efficacy.
In India, this policy allowed young Intuit innovators to conduct an experiment on helping farmers get the best price for their products — even though management initially wasn’t interested in the idea. After conducting research, these innovators found that the farmers had no information on what price wholesalers would pay on any given day in any geographical market for their crops. So, Intuit employees created an app for mobile phones that provided farmers with daily prices from various markets. The farmers could then choose to travel to the market that would pay them the highest price. Today, 1.6 million Indian farmers now use the successful program these innovators developed.
Rein in your emotions.
Emotions are one of the defining qualities of being human, and they can certainly make life wonderful, worthwhile, and interesting. But when it comes to doing your best thinking and learning, emotions tend to hold us back. Even if you consider yourself to be a very rational person, Hess guarantees that your emotions impact your attitudes, communications, and behaviors, as well as your approaches to problems, new situations, and decisions.
For example, a real-time critique by a difficult or unfriendly manager can elicit highly negative emotional arousal that adversely affects your listening, processing, and interpretation of what is being said. (In general, negative emotions restrict and narrow cognitive processes.) So instead of sifting through the manager’s words to glean useful criticism you can use to improve your work, your anger might cause you to discard everything that was said in the meeting. Alternatively, your self-esteem might take a huge hit, and your feelings of shame and fear might cause your performance to further deteriorate.
Learning to self-manage your emotions is a valuable skill to develop. Tactics as simple as taking deep breaths or taking a walk to reduce physiological stress can help you begin to ‘tame’ emotions. Although we can’t completely ‘turn off’ our emotions, we can deliberately try to think rationally about the situation, causing the emotional reaction to ‘turn on’ cognitive areas of the brain that can ‘tamp down’ emotions. In many cases, this could help us make better decisions and be more open-minded.
Stop letting fear drive your decisions.
From an evolutionary standpoint, fear is a good thing. It alerted our ancestors to danger and held them back from making decisions that might threaten the species’ survival. But in the business world, playing it safe because you’re afraid of the consequences is likely to have the opposite effect: A bolder colleague (or computer!) will step up to take your place. Abraham Maslow aptly stated that an individual would engage in learning only “to the extent he is not crippled by fear, [and] to the extent he feels safe enough to dare.
Fear of failure, fear of looking bad, fear of embarrassment, fear of a loss of status, fear of not being liked, and fear of losing one’s job all inhibit the kind of learning that’s essential for your long-term job security. To proceed more fearlessly into the future, you (and ideally, your whole organization) need to adopt a different mindset about mistakes.
Learning is not an efficient 99 percent defect-free process. Far from it. So mistakes have to be valued as learning opportunities. In fact, as long as they don’t violate financial risks guidelines and you aren’t making the same mistakes over and over again, mistakes can be good. The key is making sure you’re learning from them. And the faster and better you are at turning mistakes into learning opportunities, the less likely it is that you will be replaced by some machine. Acknowledging mistakes, confronting weaknesses, and testing assumptions is a reliable strategy for long-term success.
Make it (whatever “it” is) less about you.
Looking out for number one is engrained in human nature. We instinctively think about how situations and events will impact us and how we can use them to our advantage. I’m not saying you should stop looking out for your own interests, but he is advocating that you make more of an effort to empathetically consider how others are being impacted, and how you can all work together to achieve desirable outcomes.
Humans have the best chance of surviving the coming technology tsunami when we band together. We’ll need to draw on our collective intelligence to innovate and adapt, and we’ll need to work in teams to confront and get past individual biases and egos. In my own work life, I’ve experienced the power of making ‘it’ less about me. When I started to really listen to my team, to suspend my judgments, to pay attention to others’ emotional cues, and to consider their views, my team began to perform at ever-higher and more successful levels.
Making it less about me — quieting my ego — became much easier when I realized I am not my ideas or my business beliefs, and as a leader, I don’t have to be right all the time. But I do have to get to the best answer all the time, and in many cases that involves others helping me think better. Humility will help you really hear what your customers and colleagues are saying, and humility will help you be open-minded and more willing to try new ways. Both make innovation and entrepreneurial activities more likely to be successful.
Stop the time traveling.
The human mind has a tireless ability to dissect past events and project what might happen in the future. This power can be very beneficial when used for good — but too often, we use it for “evil.” We obsess over past mistakes and beat ourselves up, instead of learning what we can and moving on. We stress about future “what ifs” over which we have little to no control — or we plan our responses to other people instead of actually listening to them talk. And in the meantime, we fail to use the present moment productively.
We must train our brains to ‘be’ where we are right now, fully engaging with and responding to our current experience. This is especially important (and difficult) when we’re connecting with other people. Consider that while most people speak at a rate of 100-150 words per minute, we can cognitively process up to 600 words a minute! To fight cognitive boredom and keep your attention from wandering, listen actively by summarizing what the other person said and asking questions for clarifications.
I want to assure you that I’m not anti-technology at all. I’m excited by all the tech advances that are being made, and I think there’s room for everyone — man and machine — if we humans focus on developing the skills that are ours and ours alone. As technology drives business change, not only will we have to rewire the way we operate as individuals, but entire organizations will need to be radically restructured in terms of their cultures, leadership models, view of employees, innovation and collaboration processes, and more. In this new environment, will you be prepared to utilize the competitive advantage your humanity gives you?
Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and the author of 11 books, including “The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System, and Processes“ and “Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization“.