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The only human skill that artificial intelligence can’t overtake

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In November 2017, National Australia Bank revealed a three-year plan to replace 6,000 roles with new technology. This wasn’t due to a downturn — quite the opposite. The news came the same day the bank announced a profit of more than A$5 billion. 

Since then, countless other organisations and industries have experienced significant changes to the number and types of roles available, as well as the ways in which people work.

The ability to move beyond technical and role-specific expertise to embrace human-centred communication will be what keeps leaders relevant: inspiring people to do their best work, helping them navigate ongoing change, increasing productivity, promoting innovation and keeping them safe, healthy and happy. 
 
Paradoxically, moving into the age of artificial intelligence, the new roles that will inevitably emerge will be more dependent on our relationships with each other than ever before.

Leadership and communication

The ‘2018 Workplace Learning Report’ by LinkedIn revealed executives, people managers and talent developers are already prioritising the soft skills – specifically leadership and communication. And for good reason.

A ‘2018 Willis Towers Watson survey’ of 500 global companies discovered a direct correlation between human skills and financial performance, with high performing companies exhibiting excellence in leadership, image and competitiveness, communication and career development. These areas far outweighed operating efficiency, work tools and conditions and pay, and rewards.

The importance of communication is old news to forward-thinking leaders. The ‘2013–2014 Change and Communication ROI Study Report’ by Towers Watson identified a strong relationship between financial performance and effective communication trending back to 2003. They found that companies that communicated effectively demonstrated 57% higher shareholder returns over a five-year period, and were three and a half times more likely to significantly outperform peers. 

Gallup’s comprehensive biennial Q12 Meta-Analysis found a correlation between a highly engaged workforce and strong business performance, including better profitability, productivity and shareholder returns. Of the 12 formative measures of engagement, eight related directly to communication.

The art of attention

Human-centred communication goes beyond the typically uninspiring corporate messaging – it considers the way people naturally communicate. It draws on findings in psychology and neuroscience to increase attention, influence and engagement. 
 
Attention is crucial. Without it, leaders risk wasting time and money developing well-intentioned, potentially brilliant strategies, programs and initiatives that fail before they get off the ground. Not because they weren’t good or necessary, but simply because no-one paid them attention.

The challenge is a busy and increasingly connected world, with a barrage of priorities competing for eyes, ears and minds. A study published in Business Outlook found that employees at Fortune 1000 companies send and receive an average of 1,798 messages each day, including texts, phone calls and face-to-face interactions. To survive amid the noise, people have become skilled at tuning out irrelevant or uninspiring information. 

Attention is a valuable resource and, like any other finite resource, it should be wisely invested in, carefully managed and never squandered. Good communication uses curiosity, anticipation, humour and surprise; captivates people with stories; and visualises content to make it easier to consume. 

Speaking the right language

Effective communication is also fundamental to influence. Without it, nothing and no-one changes, which is as good as a death knell in today’s fast-paced business environment. Smart leaders understand the power of language to inspire people, bring them together and compel them to act. They consider how words, imagery and narratives evoke emotions that drive behavioural change. 
 
Over time, the same human-centred communication tactics that help facilitate attention and influence also build connection, relationships and, ultimately, a highly engaged workforce. For leaders looking for the edge, investing in people and developing human skills today will undoubtedly pay dividends in the future.

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