The rise of technology in the workplace has many employees looking to adopt new skills in order to keep pace, like coding or data analytics. But these skills will likely have a short shelf life. Artificial intelligence has already been trained to code, meaning even a developer’s job isn’t safe from future disruption.
Meanwhile our soft skills, such as empathy and communication, urgently need our attention. That’s because even though technology aims to drive efficiency, save time, increase productivity, it’s stressing us out. And under stress, it’s difficult to practice skills like empathy. Instead of understanding that some people take longer than others to adapt to change, for example, managers might lash out at an employee who is falling behind. The employee, in turn, might feel more resistant to a change initiative because of the stress they’re already experiencing in the workplace.
But as technology continues to upend the way we work, these soft skills—specifically: adaptability, delivering feedback and empathy—will ensure that employees can continue to work together and problem-solve. By developing a regular practice for each, managers and employees can better navigate today’s workplace disruptors like the rise of the gig economy or the increase in mergers and acquisitions. These skills help employees stand apart from passing trends and ongoing change and give them staying power.
Change Is Constant—So Become Adaptable
Even though change is a normal part of life, people tend to be bad at it. Part of the reason is described in Ann Salerno’s change cycle, which shows that we all experience feelings of fear and loss when we’re first confronted with change. Think about the announcement of a merger acquisition, for example: With it, employees feel the loss of the status quo, the fear of possible layoffs, uncertainty about new team members or technology. In fact, most M&As fail—and it’s often due to a lack of preparation and adaptability for such a change.
But change is the new normal in our digital age. To see success with disruptors like M&As, we need to practice adaptiveness, starting with the acceptance of those feelings of loss, fear and doubt. Know that these are temporary and work to take actionable steps towards a new normal, where everyone will reap the benefits of the change. The goal is to move more quickly from those early stages to more productive experiences with change, which will come with practice. Any time your company experiences a change, big or small, acknowledge and discuss it. Meet regularly with teams to discuss ongoing change initiatives. By keeping employees aware of what’s ahead, they can prepare for it—and even get good at transformation.
Delivering Feedback is No Longer the Manager’s Job—It’s Everyone’s
As how and where we work changes, so too do office dynamics. Across industries, titles have dissipated and there is less top-down command. More people are working remotely. And more offices are hiring contract or gig workers with specialized skills for short-term projects. As a result, typical chains of feedback are no longer effective; instead every employee needs to be able to accept feedback from every angle and know when to deliver it, too.
As a manager to many, I’ve gathered techniques for delivering feedback well that can be applied at all levels: First, take the time to get to know colleagues and their strengths, weaknesses and motivators. This will help build a rapport and make feedback feel fair and actionable. Then, goal-set. This step is crucial: By establishing specific expectations at the outset, it’s easier to determine whether or not critical feedback is necessary—if someone did not meet expectations, have a conversation.
Empathy—The Best Way to Handle Any Kind of Change
Empathy is the ability to examine a situation from another’s perspective to better understand their reaction or struggle. And in our ever-changing workplaces it’s more than just a soft skill — it’s a superpower. In fact, one study found 92% of employees believe empathy is undervalued in their workplace. Empathy allows employees to approach each other with kindness and understanding first, and set aside the stress or frustration they might be experiencing in this new world of work. By practicing empathy, managers and employees alike can make space for everyone to process changes, for example. This means not emoting frustration — through body language, words or tone of voice — when some are slow to adapt.
To exercise more empathy, begin by checking in with yourself. Create a weekly calendar appointment and take time to think about where you practiced empathy in or outside of the office. Did you enter a fit of rage when someone cut you off in traffic? Did you lash out at a remote co-worker who was unreachable when you needed them? Sit and think about where you did and didn’t practice empathy, observe your triggers and think up ways to change your immediate responses.
Adding technological innovation in the workplace is no longer predicted—it’s expected, and employees will have to continue adjusting to its resulting changes. But amid all this variability, there is one constant solution: honing in on our innately human capabilities. The fact of the matter is AI and robots can’t practice empathy, resilience or thoughtful communication in the same way humans can. This difference will set employees apart, and even become a point of emphasis, as disruption accelerates in the coming decade.
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