The Softer Side of Tech: Nurturing the Power of Emotional Intelligence

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 10.59.29 AMAs technology becomes an integral part of every company, CIOs and IT leaders are being asked to weigh in on more strategic business decisions, not just technology concerns. In turn, the elevation of the IT role is changing the dynamics for IT hiring and promotions.

Employers today are seeking IT professionals who can devise technology solutions to complex business problems. Equally important, demand is growing for people who can balance deep technical skills with so-called soft skills that reflect a high degree of emotional intelligence.

These soft skills involve collaboration, adaptability, problem solving, empathy, and listening. Other softer traits include cultural competence and intellectual curiosity. IT managers who exhibit these skills are highly sought after for their abilities to communicate and work effectively with non-technical business units outside the IT department.

Let’s define emotional intelligence as the ability to recognize one’s own emotions and the emotions of others, and to use emotional cues to improve decisions and behaviors. Studies have shown that high levels of emotional intelligence correlate with strong leadership skills and improved job performances.

Collaboration is a useful talent for leaders who need to break down rigid hierarchies and work with people from across their organizations. Also, leaders who recognize cultural diversity in a global economy are more apt to pick up on cultural references and be responsive to diverse types of people. Behind Silicon Valley’s success in tech is our collaborative culture. Within that collaborative culture is the essential respect for diversity that enables it all.

In the high-stakes war for talent, these soft skills have emerged as a new kind of “third space” that departs from the traditional business skills taught in most MBA programs and engineering schools. More employers are recognizing the importance of soft skills, which have been largely undervalued by academia and industry, according to a recent study by the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, reported in the Harvard Business Review.

The USC study looked at data from nearly 2,000 global executives across a broad range of industries. It found that empathy has become more important in the shift from an industrial-manufacturing economy to a services-knowledge economy. Empathy can help in persuading colleagues to adopt new ways of thinking, and in building stronger bonds with teammates including colleagues and partners.

In our knowledge economy, more highly skilled, hard-to-automate jobs will require social adeptness, according to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NEBR) titled “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market.”

The NEBR paper shows that social skill tasks grew by 24% from 1980 to 2012, compared to just 11% growth for math-intensive tasks in that same period. The data also show that social skills and cognitive skills are highly complementary. 

Strong social skills will become increasingly important as more human jobs get automated, because the ability to work well with other people is a skill that machines simply cannot perform. Inflexible computers are still terrible at simulating social interactions. As a result, technology professionals who can develop soft skills have a much better chance of improving strategic business outcomes and elevating their careers in the process. 

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