Why emotional intelligence will always prevail over artificial intelligence

By Chris Preston

I’ve been watching the debate around Artificial Intelligence (AI) for some time. We are seeing it pushed heavily into our lives, from the raft of circular devices that are capable of holding conversations with us (albeit slightly Lewis Carroll ones), through to the emerging tools that businesses are using to deliver core processes.

“Replaced by a robot!” is a headline that appeared in the late 80s and has re-emerged recently as the summary response to emerging smart tools that functions such as HR, finance and project management are turning to. More sensationally, the recurrent headline has now changed to ‘Sacked by a robot!”. Strange days indeed.

Artificial Intelligence is smart but on an IQ level not an EQ (emotional intelligence) one

The Emotional Brain

Yes, we are going to see far more of this in the future. Smart tools that can quickly identify a person’s needs and find the right solution are going to continue to develop, to take on more tasks and become a regular feature of our lives. They are a response to a world that’s data-heavy, one that experiences change at an incredible pace and one where we don’t have the time to sift through reams of content to get a solution. But should we worry?

Probably not, is my finger-in-the-wind conclusion. Why? Let me tell you a story. A friend of mine is a retired school headmaster, hugely respected and with an incredible career behind him. In one of his last roles, as the principle of a prestigious education establishment, he was faced with a pupil that was inconsolably upset about a recent incident. The hard and fast rules were ‘you do NOT make physical contact with pupils’ – normally for good reason. However, my friend, faced with a sobbing child sat across the table from him, did what I hope every decent human would do – he gave him a hug.

And there’s the challenge. You can’t write a programme or app that will break its own rules – it’s a contradiction in terms. AI is a structured, rule-following system. Had a machine been sat across from the child, it would have handed them a tissue. AI is smart, but on an IQ basis, not on an EQ one.

As much as I hate to spin a ‘future gazing’ message, I do believe that we will soon live in a world where far more tasks are taken up by automated or smart processes. Positively, it frees up humans to do other, more rewarding things. Negatively, it removes humans from some processes where we need them. There’s no simple answer to this and we are going to have to hold a (hopefully brief) AI Revolution similar to the Industrial one, where we work through the pain of change.

All this points to a new professional standard. Already, qualifications are becoming secondary to attitude and life experience – the only solid differentiators when looking at high performing people. But we’ve been here before. In the early 2000s the phrase to talk about was Emotional Intelligence – EI/EQ – it was proving a reliable factor in identifying talent and successful relationships. But it’s also complex and not an easy one to reward or develop. “Back then” it was exciting and different but also confusing, perhaps now it’s the critical factor that will make us stand out and add value above the automation.

The valuable currency of emotional intelligence

We are increasingly hearing that the skills now needed to succeed are creativity/innovation and emotional intelligence. Put another way, we need people who can do the things that the machines and programmes cannot. Here then is the new currency for us to trade on – our ability to be fully, and effectively, human. The best companies seek to bring out their people to their fullest potential. Again, it’s not a new concept but it’s one that we will need to own and curate personally if we are to stand out and succeed. Sound unlikely? Well, let me share a stat with you – 80% of millennials state that emotional intelligence is an area they actively target as part of their own career development1.

Finally, some good news for a beleaguered demographic. Millennials are way ahead of the curve on this, and, looking at the group behind them, the ‘Polite Generation’ we are seeing people with even more social and personal awareness and control. There is hope yet.

Practically, for employers, this should kick-start a major rethink in recruitment, reward and development. Hiring for skills to today’s problems is blinkered and expensive. Seeking people who bring empathy, inspiration, flare, social awareness and personal accountability will future-proof an organisation. As the old adage goes: ‘it’s not what we respond to that matters, it’s how we respond to it.’ Helping people build these skills will also become essential, as we (sadly) are not all Millennials – but we are still keen to learn, grow and flex new emotional muscles.

What of my friend? It all ended well – the pupil worked through their problems and the family was hugely grateful for the way the situation had been handled. I believe he displayed morals when he hugged that child – and morals always trump rules. And, as science is finding, it’s damn hard to teach a robot morals.

For more infomation about the work we do in Emotional Intelligence with leaders, managers and organisations get in touch.

Levo Institute, 2017