Grow the Human Skills: Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication

AI, which once lived on the far horizon, is making a swift and dramatic entrance into our daily lives. The technology promises to upend the way business operates. Yet no one is sure how that new reality will unfold.  

It’s certain that jobs, which are ubiquitous in the current economy, will disappear in the same way that file clerks and gas station attendants have vanished. Supermarket cashiers, fast food employees, and retail sales assistants are already on the chopping block.

According to a study from Goldman Sachs, “Generative AI tools could impact 300 million full-time jobs worldwide, which could lead to a significant disruption in the job market.” These are ten occupations that PC Magazine predicts are the most endangered.

  1. Accountants
  2. Content moderators
  3. Legal Assistants
  4. Proofreaders
  5. Entry-level stock traders
  6. Transcribers
  7. Graphic designers, where creativity isn’t a priority
  8. Customer service representatives
  9. Soldiers
  10. Writers, where quantity is a greater concern than quality

I reviewed several of these lists. The nominees varied depending on the publication. A career slated for extinction on one appeared on another among professions listed as the most viable. For the time being, the bottom line seems to be, there is no substitute for intrinsically human skills.

Empathy, or the quality that baffled Star Trek’s Mr. Data, will continue to be lacking in his real-world counterparts. Abilities rooted in a deep understanding of human behavior remain essential for success in business and life.

Abilities rooted in a deep understanding of human behavior remain essential.

In 2002, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills identified a set of qualities they consider most important for learning in the digital era. The 4Cs or critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication complement technology and will serve any organization well in competitive markets.

To prepare for an uncertain future, begin building competence in areas where people remain the experts.

Practice Critical Thinking

The Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory can perform 10.51 quadrillion floating-point operations per second. Summit makes short work of analyzing plenty of tough problems. In this age of unprecedented processing power, why is critical thinking important?

The word critical comes from the Greek word kritikos, which means the ability to judge or discern. Here is a definition of critical thinking from the horse’s mouth, the Foundation for Critical Thinking:

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

Although this explanation sounds more like it belongs in the classroom than the office, my takeaway is the focus on uniquely human skills. Applying reflection, reasoning, and individual experience to problem-solving is not part of the Summit supercomputer program, but it is an approach that is invaluable in making advantageous business decisions.     

A culture of learning, where curiosity is valued and debate encouraged, creates fertile ground for critical thinking. Leaders who promote professional development and education of all kinds also encourage teams to bring an expansive perspective to their work.

Set the example by modeling the behavior you would like to see. Ask probing questions, consider a variety of opinions, including ideas that may be unpopular, and insist on objective analysis. 

Don’t waste valuable brain power. Giving every employee, no matter how junior, the opportunity to share ideas and the agency to manage their work creates an expectation for thought leadership across the organization.      

Inspire Creativity

Laughter and casual atmosphere encourage people to bring novel ideas forward.

Letting ideas flow freely seems like the opposite of the filtering process required for critical thinking. But creativity flourishes under many of the same conditions. An atmosphere of trust is essential both for people to challenge ideas and to brainstorm possibilities.

Intimidation is Roundup for creativity. Ideas won’t grow where there is fear of judgment, failure, or a negative response. Welcome every proposal. Make room for experiments that may not produce positive results. If suggestions miss the mark, use constructive criticism, not judgment, to point your team in the right direction. Allow people to build on each other’s suggestions by replacing “no” with “yes, and.” Give spontaneity a spot on every agenda.

Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.” An office filled with silent workers hunkered down in their cubicles is not going to produce much innovative thinking. Laughter and a casual atmosphere encourage people to bring novel ideas forward. It takes some courage to venture into this uncharted territory. But with regular practice, even introverts can be comfortable contributing. 

Diversity is an easy path to a variety of perspectives. Avoid cookie-cutter hiring. Welcome people who can contribute unique stories and experiences. These are qualities to look for:

  • Confident thinkers who are comfortable with ambiguity.
  • The ability to manage risk and the courage to fail.
  • The enthusiasm to take initiative and discover something unique.
  • Open-minded humanists, interested in a broad spectrum of topics and issues.
  • Big picture thinkers who can execute the details.
  • A collegial attitude that contributes to productive relationships.

Promote Collaboration

Creative people understand the power of group thinking. Don’t be a team in name only. In competitive markets, good collaborative skills can be the differentiator between extinction and rising to new levels of relevance.

An integrated strategic plan forms the basis for cooperative initiatives. Demonstrate how individual and departmental objectives relate to overarching goals and the organization’s mission. Then put muscle behind that motivation by making collaboration part of the performance standards. Offer recognition and tangible rewards to individuals and groups that work together successfully.

Member-centricity is also a glue that can help people work with a common purpose. When the focus is on customer experience, departments need to cooperate to provide that seamless personalization.

Positive group dynamics don’t happen by accident. Help your people to develop interpersonal skills by encouraging networking and relationship building. Be tolerant of time spent chatting in the breakroom or the occasional long lunch.

The right team feeds off the energy of the group.

If your team is remote, find strategies to bring people together online. David Caruso, whose company Highroad Solutions has been a remote workplace since 2005, offered this example. “Some employees miss the social aspects of the workplace. We’ve tried to compensate for the lack of coffee machine/breakroom conversations in several ways. We schedule daily conference calls around a number of activities. A monthly mystery lunch is one of our most popular events. DoorDash delivers a surprise meal to the entire team, and we all sit down and eat together. I thought it was silly at first, but everyone likes it. Events like that help keep people engaged.”

David added this comment about the synergy of enthusiasm. “The right team also feeds on the energy of the group. A good mix of diverse individuals will work collectively to find new ways of doing business and progressing over time.”

Enhance Communication

The other three Cs depend on this fourth quality. I’m not sure communication is the priority it should be. Training in this all-important skill isn’t generally on the menu of professional development offerings. But the assumption that employees already know how to talk to each other is far from true.

Even the most compelling speakers and writers can use help understanding how to interact effectively with a variety of personalities. As the workplace becomes more diverse, mastering the ability to manage and motivate a range of work styles and preferences becomes critical.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is an excellent tool for taking communication to the next level. .orgSource consultant Kevin Martlage is a certified Myers-Briggs practitioner who works with our clients to help them hone those skills.

Kevin had this observation about the value of training. “Intentional communicators bring a sense of responsibility and thoughtfulness to the conversation. Speakers are called on to deliberately choose words that accurately convey the meaning of the interaction. While listeners are responsible for hearing what is said before formulating a response and asking follow-up questions to ensure they have correctly understood. Both participants must be aware of the unspoken emotional dynamics and backstory that might influence the conversation.”

Intentional communication requires participants to find mutually beneficial outcomes. It moves people away from “I” and toward “we.”

Become a Competitor

Although the 4Cs have been identified as important in educational curriculums, most employees don’t enter the workplace as experts. By growing these human skills across your organization and pairing them with technology, you harness the power to be a formidable competitor in the 21st-century marketplace.      

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