Why Empathy Is Your New Competitive Advantage

As AIs driven by machine learning start to outperform experts at specialized tasks, social and emotional skills will take center stage in a wide range of industries. Empathy is the human skill for the future.

by Michael Miller

The robots are here. McKinsey, the global consulting firm, estimated before the pandemic that in the US alone, 37 million workers would be displaced by automation by 2030. They recently updated that figure to 45 million. That’s one third of the entire workforce… in the next 10 years. Contrary to popular belief, those 45 million at risk jobs aren’t in factories; manufacturing is an industry that has, by and large, already been automated. This is the next wave, driven by advanced machine learning AI, and it’s coming for white collar professionals’ jobs – accountants, sales reps, data analysts, even lawyers and doctors. “Jobs that we thought were safe,” says New York Times columnist Kevin Roose. 

Is your job safe? In this new wave of AI and automation, what can you do to make yourself irreplaceable? That’s the subject of Roose’s latest book, Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation, and the answer is both surprising and empowering: Strengthen your uniquely human skills, Roose says – like empathy, creativity and emotional intelligence – so you’re equipped to do the things machines can’t. Specialist knowledge was a competitive advantage for a long time, but not anymore. The new frontiers are empathy and emotional intelligence.

Let’s take a look at the economy in the era of AI and practical tips to futureproof your career and your life.

From lawyer to legal therapist: How empathy makes you indispensable

In Futureproof, Roose explains what this transformation will look like in a number of fields:

“The value of emotional intelligence is already obvious in jobs like nursing, ministry, and teaching. But as AI and automation enter more fields, making people feel connected and socially fulfilled will become a high value skill in those fields, too. Good lawyers will become like legal therapists – creating trust with clients and helping solve their problems, rather than simply writing briefs and doing research. Doctors will be sought after based on how they interact with patients, rather than how well they know the latest treatment protocols. Successful programmers won’t just be isolated geniuses pecking out lines of code; they’ll be people who can lead teams, think strategically, and explain complicated technical concepts to non-programmers. People who are skilled at creating social and emotional experiences will be better positioned for the future than people whose primary skill is making or doing things.”

Did you know? Today AIs can…

  • detect tumors on a CT scan with an error rate 20x better than a human radiologist.
  • find errors in legal documents more accurately and 100x faster than top lawyers
  • spot tax errors better than top accountants
The future is here.

It seems worth noting that this runs directly counter to the dominant advice we’ve heard for years of how to survive and thrive in the age of machines. Conventional wisdom says that we need to be more like computers: major in STEM fields, learn to code, work hyper efficiently. But Roose’s argument is that we won’t be able to code better than computers – we already don’t (more on that below). But what humans still do better than AI, and will for the foreseeable future, are the skills that make us uniquely human, like connecting on an emotional level. That’s why Google, the World Economic Forum and other thought leaders say empathy and emotional intelligence are the most important skills for the next 100 years of work.

Are robots really coming for your job? If you’re skeptical, you’re not alone. The research, however, is alarmingly clear: They are.

AI will take jobs… just not mine!

Kevin Roose has firsthand experience with thinking a job is safe, only to lose it to a robot. He started off his career as a journalist writing corporate earnings stories, a job that’s largely been automated in the last 10 years. And he’s seen many other jobs in the newsroom, from editors to ad salespeople, get replaced by Google and Facebook algorithms. Roose didn’t exactly see these changes coming, and it turns out, he’s not alone on that front:

An interesting fact about automation and job losses is that even though a vast majority of people recognize that AI is coming for people’s jobs, they rarely think it’s coming for their job. A 2017 Gallup survey found that while 73% of US adults believe automation will “eliminate more jobs than it creates,” only 23% were worried about losing their jobs. That gap means a lot of people think they can’t be replaced, when in reality, they will be. And we’re talking years, not decades. In many fields, technology already exists in which computer algorithms outperform even the top experts. For years it was a Sci-Fi fantasy to think a robot could do the work of an accountant, lawyer or doctor better than they could themselves, but the research doesn’t lie.

AI vs. experts: Is specialized knowledge protection? 

Here are a few striking examples of machine learning AIs competing with top human specialists, cited by Roose in Futureproof:

  • AIs exist that can spot tax errors more accurately than top accountants – and exponentially faster, too. Accounting – based as it is on static rules – is a job that has a 99% chance of being automated. (For an example of an accountant determined to stay in the 1%, watch this video about Kevin Roose’s comedian accountant.)
  • AIs also exist that consistently outperform human editors, both in terms of speed and accuracy. Even writing stories that follow a formula, like corporate earnings stories, can be done way more efficiently by computers. Hence Roose’s career change.

Even law and medicine, renowned for specialized expertise, are not immune.

  • AIs detect cancerous tumors better than top doctors. In 2018, a Chinese tech company built a deep learning algorithm that outperformed 15 top doctors at tasks like diagnosing brain cancer and other diseases. That same year, American researchers developed an algorithm that detected tumors on a CT scan with an error rate 20x lower (!) than a human radiologist.
  • It’s the same story for AIs vs. lawyers.  An AI startup called LawGeex developed an algorithm that spotted legal issues in nondisclosure agreements faster and more accurately than 20 top corporate lawyers. The AI had an average accuracy rate of 94%, versus 85% by the top lawyers. And while it took the lawyers about an hour and a half on average, it took the AI 26 seconds on average.

And the list goes on and on.

So as computers get better than experts at doing and making things, what will happen? Some jobs will be eliminated, of course. But the more immediate and likely effect is that the primary focus of those jobs – what those professionals do on a day-by-day and hour-by-hour basis, what skills are needed and what sets apart star performers – will shift dramatically toward social and emotional skills that computers can’t do.

Because while you obviously want your brain scan to be as accurate as possible – and presumably cheaper, too – do you really want to find out you have brain cancer from a robot? The answer for most people is no, and especially not if they can go to an emotionally intelligent radiologist that can provide comfort and connection in a moment where it’s needed more than ever.

Empathy and emotional

intelligence are the new

competitive advantage.

Are you ready?

Futureproof yourself with empathy and emotional intelligence

Empathy and emotional intelligence are more valuable than ever, which makes the next logical question: How do you improve them? Is emotional intelligence something you can learn, or is it some innate character trait that you are born with? What about empathy?

A growing body of research suggests that both empathy and emotional intelligence are learnable skills – or, in the case of emotional intelligence, a set of learnable skills (one of which is empathy). As these skills become more important across industries, and professional success depends on having them (not to mention personal wellbeing and life satisfaction), these soft skills aren’t just “nice to have.” You can save your job, and make your life better, by learning them. To start, here are three practical tips to increase your empathy, and a simple model for practicing emotional intelligence that you can apply to almost any situation.

3 empathy tips

Here are 3 practical tips to practice empathy, including a few common “empathy traps” to avoid:

Resist the urge to do something. True empathy often means just listening to someone, not doing anything. But for many people, myself included, it feels irresistible to put a silver lining on somebody else’s problem (at least this didn’t happen…), or offer some sort of solution – to do something. But as bestselling author Brené Brown says, “Rarely does a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” Just listening and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with someone is often the best way to show empathy.

Verbalize others’ emotions. Research has found that simply acknowledging people’s emotions (“You seem upset”) leads to big increases in trust. The increase is even more powerful for verbalizing people’s negative emotions than positive ones, though both showed a correlation. Practicing empathy is as simple as making someone feel seen and heard.

Ask more questions. We all make assumptions and judgments about the people around us. It’s natural to an extent. But if we can replace even a small percentage of our judgment statements with questions, we tap into a valuable pattern of empathy. Instead of saying, “She is this…” or “He’s so that”, try asking, “I wonder what’s going on for her?” or “I wonder if they are going through a difficult time?”

While important, empathy is just one of the skills that make up emotional intelligence. Other emotional intelligence skills like increasing self-awareness, exercising optimism and navigating emotions also play crucial roles in social and emotional connection. To protect your job and thrive in the new work reality, a holistic emotional intelligence toolkit is essential. The Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence is a great place to start.


How to practice emotional intelligence

The Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence consists of three important pursuits: to become more aware (noticing what you do), more intentional (doing what you mean), and more purposeful (doing it for a reason). Throughout the day ask yourself these 3 questions: 

What am I feeling?  Tune in. Notice your feelings and reactions.  Get off autopilot and pay attention to what’s happening inside. Six Seconds calls this step Know Yourself.

What options do I have? Respond. Instead of reacting, give yourself a moment to de-escalate and evaluate all of your options.  Six Seconds calls this Choose Yourself.

What do I truly want?  Remember what’s truly important to you, consider others, and then move forward with those in mind. Six Seconds calls this Give Yourself.

For more about this model and practical tips to transform your life with emotional intelligence,  check out Six Seconds’ online course, Emotional Intelligence at Work, on sale now for $14.99 for a limited time.


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Michael Miller

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