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illustration of the ten human skills amidst a city with a soft green background and an arm reaching out to it


Ten Human Skills for the Future of Work

These core strengths are key not only for building and leading effective teams, but for thriving in the constantly evolving workplace.

We’ve all heard how we must practice being more human to avoid turning into robots. But how about practicing humanity to make sure we don’t become monsters?

Whether it’s the emotional cues spinning by in a meeting headed for disarray, curiosity that could turn a business-as-usual day into an internal spark reminding you why you got into this darn job in the first place, or the art of making space for conflict resolution that’s going to save us all, here are ten ways to salvage our better selves and keep us from mutating into workplace monsters.

1. Empathy Mindset

Empathy gives us the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes so we can see and feel from their perspective. It is a mindset and a comprehensive approach to being – in the workplace and in life.

  • Listening: The first step in understanding is to ask questions. Then pause to hear how your colleague explains what they are thinking and feeling. By listening you’ll gain valuable context for where they’re coming from.
  • Appreciation: Showing sincere appreciation and celebration of others’ contributions allows you to show that you value them.
  • Self-Awareness: Part of feeling what others feel is also about understanding your own biases and limiting beliefs.
  • Judgment: When people seek advice or share a problem, they are not looking for your criticism. Consider that they may already have the answer, which you can help tease out. Sometimes just acknowledging what they’ve said is the best first step. 
  • Presence: Before meetings, take a moment to think about who you’ll be with and what they are dealing with at work – and in life. Time is one of our most valuable assets, so be there fully.

2. Emotional Intelligence

This is primarily about the self: building self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Being cognizant of how your behavior affects others is at the heart of emotional intelligence.

Think about these questions: What types of behaviors drive you crazy? Where does your anxiety show up? What do you do when you don’t feel heard? How do your resentments show up in interactions with others?

3. Effective Communication

What gets in the way of good communication? Frustration, lack of trust, stress, and avoiding problems, which all add up to endless hours wasted. It’s important to start from a place of active listening, and consider the following principles.

  • Intention: Know what you want to say and be clear about your objective. None of us are mind readers. 90% of communication is non-verbal so make sure the words you are using accurately convey the point you want to make, and that you’ve dealt with your feelings before speaking.
  • Organization: Take the time to organize your thoughts and deliver them in a straightforward way.
  • Framing: The courage to say what’s really on your mind is important, but remember that “I think, I feel” is much more effective than starting with “you,” which puts people on the defensive.
  • Affirmation: Do people understand what you are saying? Asking if information makes sense may reveal a potential problem. 

4. A Growth Mindset

“Becoming is better than being.”

― Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

So much of what we do is driven by fear, even in the workplace. This fear mindset promotes a culture of anti-change, even in “innovative” companies. Allowing for calculated risk-taking is essential for new product development and innovative solutions. Rather than stigmatizing failure, a growth mindset embraces it as a necessary part of progress. As Stanford University Professor of Psychology Carol Dweck points out, proactively finding positive outcomes despite any challenges helps build resilience. 

5. Curiosity + Instigation

Curiosity is a natural part of any creative cycle. It paves the way for “possibility thinking,” rather than business as usual. Instigation is an invitation to challenge quick fixes, lackluster solutions and mediocrity. Start by embracing discomfort and the unknown, allow space for dissonant ideas, diverging opinions, and seemingly improbable outcomes. Challenging rigid ways of thinking and working enables new ideas to form. Allow yourself to experience moments of awe and wonder, and bring that practice to your work. Great ideas often arise when the mind is still and at ease.

6. Strategic Analysis and Analytical Thinking

People often jump into the execution phase right after discovery. The missing step, strategic analysis, ensures the right questions are asked before a team moves into problem solving. Strategic analysis helps to identify complex problems by providing a top-level view into the interconnected web of what can often seem like isolated issues. 

Analytical thinking enables people to suspend emotional decision making, and instead look logically at evidence-based research and tests. As part of the analytic process, one looks at everything from cause and effect to pro versus con to cost benefit analysis. It’s a mistake in any product development process that strategic analysis and analytical thinking rest on the shoulders of just one person. The most successful project requires that solutions are sourced from a multidisciplinary team. 

7. Complex Problem Solving

Complex problem solving is most effective when members of a team look at a project brief with the eyes of a strategist. Long before solutions are offered and significant time is spent, make sure to identify the real problem before jumping into solutions. In order to get into problem-solving mode, you need to understand the true problem at hand, identify challenges in the way, resist simple solutions, identify constraints and pathways to feasibility, and, above all, make sure you’re open to experimentation. 

8. Conflict Resolution

It’s inevitable that conflict arises in a team at some point or another. It arises most frequently when roles aren’t clearly defined, there’s been a breakdown in communication, when assumptions are made, and when workflows and processes are poorly designed. Most of us have little to no training with expressing negative emotions: frustration, hurt, outrage. Our default reaction is to avoid discomfort, pretend nothing is wrong, or unconsciously become passive aggressive. Allowing conflict to fester can be hugely detrimental to morale and productivity. Among the most effective skills to learn in order to resolve conflict are mastering deep listening, mediation and facilitation. Giving people the benefit of the doubt and leading with curiosity are also powerful tools. 

9. Negotiation and Persuasion

On top of understanding another’s perspective and being resilient, work demands that we find pathways to being effective. This requires negotiation and persuasion. It’s not just for the sales team. You need to be clear about what you want and what you’re willing to let go of to get it. 

Given the future of work and the growing gig economy, more and more professionals will be forced to become more entrepreneurial. Part of what makes an entrepreneur successful is the ability to pitch and sell their services which is where negotiation and persuasion will fit in – not only for freelancers, but also for in-house employees.

10. Leadership

A great leader recognizes that trust, transparency, inclusivity, and respect are essential pillars upon which a vibrant company culture is built. They understand that it’s not enough to build culture, it needs to be protected and maintained. A great leader also needs to make difficult decisions and hold everyone, including themselves, accountable. 

Ultimately, being adaptable to the shifts happening in today’s workplace is about putting these human skills into practice on both an individual and organizational level. While technical skills and needs may change, understanding how to interact and be more human in the workplace may remain the only constant. 

This piece evolved out of the masterclass DLW presented at the Adobe 99U Conference in 2019.

More Posts by Shana Dressler

Shana Dressler was formerly Executive Director of Google’s 30 Weeks, the incubator for design entrepreneurs named as one of the World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies of 2015 in design. She works with fortune 500 companies offering leadership training and coaching through her company Turquoise Consulting and is the co-founder of DLW Creative Labs (along with Brian Quinn), which offers workshops and retreats to train companies and creative professionals for the Future of Work.

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