Compassion: The Soft Skill We Need

It has become a commonplace to say that, with globalisation and automation transforming the world of work, we need more 'soft skills'. There are various lists of these 'skills' available on Twitter or Linkedin, and often they are just similar things expressed with a slightly different twist. The idea is that when cost pressures push the corporations and investors look to capitalise every ounce of 'value', our very human qualities matter more than our ability to carry out instructions. In the battle for our career with robots, we can only survive by being more ourselves.

However, these things are usual staple in Conference Circuits. Books have also started to appear on the subject - a few dystopian ones in a sea of very enthusiastic elegies to the brave new world - and the message is very similar. Howard Gardner may label something 'Creativity' which Daniel Pink calls 'Play'; Howard Rheingold may call something 'participation' which may become 'Relationship Work' in Geoff Colvin's telling; but the message is that instead of competing with Robots, the basic strengths that made humans such a successful species need to be invoked all over again.

However, there are some missing ones in even the most elaborate of the lists, and these intrigue me. My favourite one is 'Compassion'. I never see this C-word pop up in any of the Powerpoint slides. Communication and Collaboration feature prominently; Relationship Smarts have also got some airtime after Mr Colvin's intervention: But Compassion never made it. Indeed, there are others, but, in this post, I want to explore the case of Compassion and why it is not considered a critical Soft Skills - and, what does that tell us about the whole conversation about Soft Skills.

First, the case for Compassion, as I see it. Compassion is the essential human tendency, a higher cognitive ability that differentiate humans from animals. Indeed, some animals are capable of compassion, but these are the ones with bigger brains and greater cognitive abilities. In contrast, the competitive spirit is a basic life force, existing almost across the board in the living universe. As we get to compete with Robots, competitiveness can be programmed but compassion less so. In fact, as far as I am aware, the recent breakthroughs in Machine Intelligence, which signifies a break away from efforts to mimic the human brains to a new kind of thinking, makes Compassion even more difficult to fit in. 

Compassion is a real differentiator because it may be irrational. This is different from collaboration, which one does for with a favourable outcome in mind: It is logical, so it can be programmed (and indeed, Robots are better at collaborating, without emotional hassles and stereotypes to deal with, than humans). Compassion, by definition, has no defined positive outcome for the person concerned, except the emotional well-being. But compassion has great collective benefits; it makes people work better together, make lives happier and at the biological end, allows new features to survive and grow. It is crucial to ideas, as a brutal winner-takes-all space would only preserve those who shout the loudest and keep us forever in the prison of the present: The outliers and the oddballs will never make it. It is the stuff that built the greatest common glue that made human societies successful: Religion. It is, I shall claim, the most successful and persistent of the soft skills that each generation needed to survive.

But we never speak about this when enumerating the soft skills. There are several reasons for this, but all of them are equally 'debunkable'. 

First is that compassion is not a workplace skill. This is empirically untrue: Many of us have direct experience on the contrary and having one's best friend at work is also very common. In fact, our ideals about good workplaces are of a community based on compassion, friendship and understanding.

Second is that compassion is not tangible, but so are all soft skills. A related objection is that it is not teachable, but any good school teacher would seriously object to that. And, even if schools have become all too assessment driven, religious teaching is all about compassion (particularly in Christianity and Islam, two of the world's most successful religions). 

Third is that compassion is culturally specific: What compassion is to an Indian may not be the same to an American. But this is flawed too, but compassion is more of an universal human feeling that the ones we call 'soft skills', such as Communication. Compassion is exactly the same feeling for an Israeli and an Arab, an Indian and a Pakistani. This is why religions based on compassion can successfully build multi-cultural communities (without linguistic unification) and this is why those who take 'culture training' to conduct international business do worse than those who are characteristically compassionate.

Fourth, a more serious one, is that compassion is rather unpredictable. If pure compassion is not based on self-interest, how does one fit that into a pursuit of career, which is all about self-interest. But this is based on the fallacy of the company man, the assumption that we are capable of maintaining a 'professional self' different from our person. As some Organisational Theorists would point out, it is the whole person who comes to work, and, at least for most people, office and careers are not solely about 'self-interest'. It is rather about their 'self-concept', and most of them are compassionate, 'normal', individuals.

Indeed, the meta-reason why Compassion does not make it to our list of soft skills because we believe the world of work is a world in itself, different from our daily lives. But the point of soft skills is exactly that: The world of work is rapidly changing from a factory, where one interacted with machines, followed instructions and lived within processes, to more like the usual human community, where being human is no longer a disadvantage, but a necessity. Compassion has come to be seen as a religious thing, not because religions invented compassion but because compassion was a human tendency that allowed us to invent religion (okay, I give it away and admit to be an atheist!). When we reach deep down and think what makes us human, as this robot-induced challenge surely does, compassion comes at the very top of human abilities. It is time to put it back on the soft skills that we should be looking out for.




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