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Why Humility Is the New Smart

Humility is the new smart rethinking human excellence in the smart machine age.

For decades, smart people were thought to be those who knew the most—and weren't afraid to show it: the manager who insists that everyone sees things his way or the student who always has her hand up because she memorized the whole textbook. But now that technology can track down reams of information faster than even the biggest know-it-alls, our definition of what makes people smart is shifting.

The "new smart" is not about what you know; it's about how you think and relate to other people, according to Edward D. Hess, a professor at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. And embodying it will be critical to succeeding in what Hess refers to as the coming "smart machine age." Hess, who co-authored Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler, 2017) with Katherine Ludwig, explains how automation will transform the workplace and perhaps spur people to take a few more bites of humble pie.

Why are "human" skills like empathy and collaboration so important in an age dominated by technology?

Research suggests that, within 15 years, roughly half of all jobs will be automated. What will be the competitive differentiator for employers when raw technology is cheap and widely available? I believe it will be the quality of your human workforce—having employees who are able to think, relate and learn continuously.

Why is humility, of all things, the quality that best characterizes the new smart?

There are certain skills that technology isn't able to do well (at least not yet)—critical thinking, engaging with others emotionally and innovating, for example. If you reflect on the behavior and mindset needed to excel in those areas, you'll notice that they all require an open mind and a quiet ego.

Humility doesn't mean being meek and not speaking up, as some people believe. Rather, it's about having an accurate view of yourself, acknowledging your mistakes and being receptive to contradictory perspectives. In the age of smart machines, workers will need to have a low focus on the self in order to succeed. They must tamp down that "me" filter that leads to defensiveness, because doing so will allow them to process information more effectively. If you have a strong ego, being right may become more important to you than being accurate. Having humility enables data-driven decision-making and the empathy needed for strong collaborations.

What can companies, and specifically HR professionals, do to prepare for the smart machine age?

HR practitioners should be concerned about their organizations' ability to prioritize a new set of skills, while also transforming their own roles. Currently, many people who work in HR are more compliance-oriented than adept at human development.

HR should start to look at hiring differently, for example. In the future, the process will incorporate more data-driven testing, and it will be slower and more detailed. Candidates will need to go through behavioral interviews not just with their potential boss and HR but with the employees who will be working with them on teams. The hiring decision will be largely consensus-driven, and the hiring team will need to assess open-mindedness, resiliency, an individual's willingness to be wrong, listening ability and innovative thinking.

Moreover, once people are hired, there will be no more of this annual review stuff. Feedback will be given to employees daily and after every meeting. Everything workers do will be documented at each step of the way.

How will employers' approach to diversity and inclusion change as they move to a more automated workplace?

In the organization of the future, work will largely be done in small teams, which operate most effectively when they have diverse members. Thus, we will get to the point where diversity becomes a strategic necessity for employers. And technology will help us to do what the law and good sense haven't been able to: implement processes that mitigate our intrinsic biases.

We should start to see a lot more women in the C-suite, for example. Women may be uniquely suited to work in the smart machine age, since studies show they are much better collaborators than men. They are also generally less narcissistic and more able to build trusting relationships.

What kinds of jobs will be "safe" once the robots start taking over?

Positions that require high emotional engagement and the customized delivery of services—for example, kindergarten teachers, social workers, home health care workers, hairdressers, etc. In other words, jobs held by anyone delivering a personalized product or service that has an emotional component. Also safe will be highly sophisticated positions that require workers to build things using technology and data science, because those roles rely on making complicated decisions, navigating uncertainty and using creativity. And, of course, there will be jobs for the people who can build robots.

Christina Folz is the editor of HR Magazine.




​An organization run by AI is not a futuristic concept. Such technology is already a part of many workplaces and will continue to shape the labor market and HR. Here's how employers and employees can successfully manage generative AI and other AI-powered systems.