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Humility is the New Smart

By Edward Hess and Katherine Ludwig

Berrett-Koehler, 211 pages, $36.99

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If you're contemplating the possibility that you might be replaced at work by a robot or computer, it pays to be humble. That's the conclusion of the authors of a recent book looking at how people can best react to what they call the Smart Machine Age.

Edward Hess, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, and Katherine Ludwig, a research associate with that school, say we are on the cusp of a new age that promises to be as disruptive and transformative as the Agricultural Age and Industrial Revolution.

The authors say technology will now replace many people thought invulnerable, including professionals. They cite research from Oxford University and the Bank of England, which predicts technology will replace 47 per cent of U.S. jobs in the next 10 to 20 years, displacing 80 million workers.

That will leave human beings with what the authors call Smart Machine Age skills for work: critical thinking, innovative thinking, creativity and the kind of high emotional engagement with others that fosters relationship building and collaboration.

Unfortunately, they write in Humility is the New Smart, "humans tend not to be good critical or innovative thinkers and we tend to engage in fast thinking tainted by cognitive biases. Our emotions are inextricably intertwined with cognition, and depending on whether and how we manage them, these emotions can either enhance or undermine our behaviour, thinking and decision-making."

So we need an update. In particular, the authors identify four fundamental behaviours that Prof. Hess's work suggests can help us overcome our limitations:

  • Quieting Ego: We need to perceive others and the world without filtering everything through a self-focused lens and reduce the negative or self-protective “inner talk” that is driven by our fears and insecurities. The most effective way of quieting ego is practising mindfulness – paying attention in a particular way in the present moment and doing so non-judgmentally. It helps us to see feelings as transient and allows us to let them pass rather than cling to them.
     
  • Managing Self: Building on that, we need to manage our thinking and emotions so they don’t defeat us in critical moments. The best way to achieve that, the authors say, is slowing down. That can allow us to overcome the sometimes-dangerous speedy automaticity of our thinking. As well, we need to be more deliberate in our thinking, understanding its purpose in a given situation and realizing what we don’t know, as well as learning about various thinking tools that can assist us.
     
  • Reflective Listening: We need to truly listen to others if we are to open our minds, push past biases and mental models, and collaborate better. You may believe you’re an excellent listener. Prof. Hess felt that way but learned he was wrong, because he was interrupting others and creating his own response in his head while they were talking. That changed when somebody suggested listening required humility. To be a good listener, you have to be focused fully on the listener with an open mind, trying to understand what he or she is saying before preparing a response.
     
  • Otherness: We need to connect with others since we can’t think or innovate at our best alone. That requires being present and genuine, listening and communicating effectively, being supportive, as well as trusting and caring.

Beyond those behaviours, and linked to them, we need humility to excel at the highest levels of thinking, learning and engaging effectively with others. That doesn't mean being meek or subdued. It involves being open-minded, self-accurate and not making everything "about me." Humility allows us to engage the world as it is as we pursue excellence.

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The book deals with these behaviours in depth, explaining how to improve at them through practice. Although the concepts may initially seem a bit vague – and perhaps even threatening – the practical tips can give you a solid foundation for adapting to the smart machine future.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an onlinecolumn, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter.

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