Soft skills training might give execs an advantage in an AI-driven future

Skills like empathy and emotional intelligence have long been seen as a must-have for HR, but they’re valuable across the C-suite, leaders say.
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· 5 min read

In recent years, the concept of “emotional intelligence”—the ability to accurately perceive and manage your own emotions as well as others’—has gained a foothold in the C-suite. Numerous studies have pointed to the importance of displaying emotional intelligence in the workplace, and the Covid-19 pandemic only strengthened the case for it.

Still, many corporate leaders still struggle with emotional intelligence and other soft skills, like empathy.

Increasingly though, some C-suite executives and founders are seeking out soft skills through leadership training and other development opportunities. Leaders told HR Brew that honing these kinds of skills may give executives a leg up in a future dominated by AI technologies.

‘Touchy-feely’ training. One organization seeking to help executives open up emotionally is Leaders in Tech (LIT), which gathers leaders of high-growth tech companies for retreats where they focus on becoming more “interpersonally adept,” according to Carole Robin, a co-founder of LIT.

Robin helped start Leaders in Tech after spending 17 years teaching courses on interpersonal dynamics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Her courses were apparently described as “touchy-feely” classes by students, given their focus on encouraging participants to be open with how they’re feeling.

In courses and retreats offered by Leaders in Tech, the sharing of feelings often happens in “t-groups,” or training groups, of 10-14 people led by facilitators.

T-groups aim to help leaders develop more robust relationships, said Robin. As participants answer open-ended prompts such as, “If you really knew me, you would know…,” they experiment with boundaries, and discover what happens when they open up to others. “You learn that when you [share] something with me, I [reciprocate],” she said. “Or you learn that when you stay pretty superficial, I stay pretty superficial.”

Through t-groups, leaders learn how to connect with others on a more emotional level, as well as to be curious and ask questions without judgment. They also learn how to give feedback in ways that “actually deepen a relationship rather than harm it,” according to Robin.

The sessions can unearth some behaviors that make participants uncomfortable. When Marissa Bell went through the training, a member of her t-group noticed she would often laugh or joke when responding to feedback, an observation that initially made her defensive.

“I realized that a lot of that was stemming from insecurity,” Bell told HR Brew. The program helped her understand how behaviors like this were perceived by other people, she said. Ultimately, she was able to open up emotionally to her team while leading a small startup geared toward faith-based communities, which helped them tackle problems more effectively, she said.

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Robin said there’s been an uptick in interest in her programs since the pandemic. “As people become more and more distant from each other, that’s a time to double down on all the stuff we teach,” she said.

Janice Burns, chief transformation officer at Degreed, has participated in a lot of different leadership programs, and said she’s not 100% convinced employees can develop emotional intelligence, “But I am convinced that you can help people shift their behaviors so that they manage relationships better, and manage themselves better,” she said.

While serving as chief learning officer at Mastercard, Burns took a Harrison assessment, which identifies traits that can derail people if not balanced out by an opposite trait. That’s when she realized she had a tendency to communicate with colleagues in a way that was frank, rather than diplomatic. While some might see frankness as honesty, others might read it as rude, she learned.

Burns started considering “how the person from the other lens could see that behavior,” and became more diplomatic in the way she communicated. The change she said, helped her “motivate, influence, and create followership” as a leader.

A leg up over AI.

Burns, however, said the advancement of AI is precisely the reason more organizations should be focusing on soft skills (she calls them “power skills,” because they have a long shelf life and can serve employees in almost any job).

“With technology advancing so much, and humans needing to learn how to collaborate with technology to get their work done, the skillset we need more and more to collaborate are the power skills,” said Burns.

Katy Conway, chief people officer at Resources Global Professionals (RGP), echoed this. She has led sessions at RGP focusing on themes like emotional intelligence, empathy, and purpose, and the firm advocates that clients focus on these competencies as well.

“As we harness more automation, innovation, technology…the value of understanding and perspective and empathy…I think it’s gonna become more important,” she said.

Update 06/23/22: This story has been updated since it was first published.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.