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In the age of ChatGPT, are emotions the new human superpower?

Published 24 April 2023 in Innovation • 7 min read

With Artificial Intelligence making huge strides in completing both simple and complex tasks, working effectively with emotions is one way for humans to stay ahead, says Silke Mischke, IMD lecturer and Senior Executive Coach.

The rapid progress made by large AI language models in recent years has made many people feel anxious about their future employability. In March, a Goldman Sachs report suggested that AI couldreplace the equivalent of 300 million full-time jobs, while the World Economic Forum stipulated last year that 50% of all employees will need reskilling by 2025 as the adoption of technology increases. But fortunately, there is still one area where we can maintain our competitive edge against the march of the machines: emotional intelligence.

Leaders at the executive level leverage their business acumen and expertise to navigate their organizations effectively through challenges. And to be successful in doing so, they need to inspire and lead others. This is where their ability to empathize and connect will make the difference. Research from Yale University has shown that emotional intelligence helps us make better decisions, while Google’s Project Oxygen project found that EQ matters more to your success as a manager than IQ and technical skill.

Even ChatGPT concedes that emotional intelligence is one area where humans will retain the upper hand.

“AI lacks the emotional intelligence that humans possess, and this can be a valuable skill to leverage. Humans can focus on developing their empathy, communication, and leadership skills to work more effectively with other humans and to manage teams that include AI systems,” it wrote during a recent conversation where I asked it how humans can stay ahead.

While AI systems can quickly process vast amounts of data and even recognize and respond to certain emotional cues, such as facial expressions and tone of voice, they do not have the same subjective experiences humans have. This means humans are capable of making more nuanced and thoughtful decisions than AI by considering a wide range of factors, including emotional context, social clues, and personal values.

The skills that differentiate us

Given this emotional advantage, I believe that creative problem-solving, complex decision-making, building relationships, and resilience are the areas that humans can focus on to differentiate ourselves from AI.

Working with executive leaders globally over the years, I sensed that there is one distinguishing factor between a good manager and an outstanding leader. And it always comes down to their ability to connect with people and inspire them around a vision and strategy.

Former New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Chief Executive of Microsoft Satya Nadella, have all been celebrated for their compassionate leadership, for actively listening to alternative perspectives, and advocating for justice and equality.

This leadership style is not yet the norm. In a study I conducted in late 2020, I asked executives how often they included emotions in their thought processes and only 22% of respondents said they include them more than half the time.

Empathy is also important in forming relationships, creating a safe environment, fostering high-performance teams, and making sure people feel heard and inspired. In an increasingly digitized world, a growing number of remote workers are reporting rising loneliness and problems disconnecting from work. One of the reasons for this is that people struggle to listen to how the situation affects them emotionally. This means leaders need to create space for emotions to be processed to avoid mental health issues.

Moreover, empathy is one of the three pillars on which trust is formed. If someone is perceived by others to have emotional trust it means they are comfortable with the relationship, communicate effectively, and come across as genuine.

So how can we include emotions and leverage empathy in the workplace to make better decisions and create superior strategies?

Keep an emotional journal

One approach is for team members to keep an ‘emotional journal. For example, following a weekly team meeting, or board presentation, ask yourself: What did I feel? What caused the emotion? What about my behavior and actions? Why did I experience that feeling? How did it impact others?

Silke Mischke speaks about the importance of emotional intelligence at the Global Female Leaders Summit 2023 in Berlin

Over time, you can use this data to interpret what led to these emotions, understand how the emotional response helped or hindered, and, if necessary, learn how to generate a different response to adapt to the situation.

Encourage others to share their feelings

As a leader, it’s important to establish team ground rules around the importance of empathy. In meetings, share how you feel about a situation and encourage others to do the same by asking questions. Listen actively to the feelings mentioned by your team members and connect with them.

While words are important, it’s also important to be aware of body language and pay attention to these cues. At the same time, show others you are actively listening and taking their perspective, by using a statement such as, “Listening to you makes me feel…” and, “I wonder…” If you feel others are stuck in an emotion that’s not helpful, ask a question that allows them to take a different perspective.

Don’t let empathy disappear into the fog

Despite the growing recognition of the importance of empathy, I feel we are nonetheless at a critical juncture when it comes to our emotional skills. The Mists of Avalon is a historical fantasy novel by US writer Marion Zimmer Bradley published in 1983. In the novel, the mists serve as a metaphor for the veil that separates the mundane world of the mortals (kings, knights, and ladies), from the magical realm of the Goddess and the priestesses of Avalon. The mist also represents the blurred lines between truth and illusion, between the known and the unknown, as the characters struggle to discern what is real and what is myth in the world of Arthurian legend.

I see it as a beautiful metaphor for what might be happening to humans right now. As we focus on technology and AI as the new realm, our human skills and wisdom risk disappearing into the fog. Rather than seeing AI as a threat, we should consider how we can develop our most unique human skills, such as empathy, and envision how we can embrace both worlds in an integrative approach.

If empathy is so important, we need to start by changing our education system and designing schools that incorporate empathy training into our curriculum from an early age.

Emotional intelligence involves the ability to recognize and manage our own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. By teaching emotional intelligence, we can help students develop self-awareness and empathy for others. This could be done through lessons on identifying emotions, learning coping strategies, and practicing active listening and communication.

By exposing students to diverse perspectives and experiences, we can help them develop a greater understanding of the world around them and the experiences of others. This could be done through literature, history, and social studies classes, as well as through discussions and activities that encourage empathy and understanding.
Service learning involves engaging students in hands-on, meaningful projects that address real-world problems. By participating in service learning, students can develop empathy and compassion for those in need and learn how to take action to help others.

Reflection is a critical component of developing empathy. By providing opportunities for students to reflect on their own experiences, as well as on the experiences of others, we can help them develop a greater understanding of themselves and the world around them. This could be done through journaling, group discussions, or other reflective activities.

If we incorporate these approaches into our education system, I believe we can help to cultivate a more empathetic and compassionate society. It’s important to recognize that empathy is a skill that can be learned and developed, and by making it a priority in our schools, we can help to create a brighter and more caring future.

By optimizing both human and artificial intelligence, we can create a future where technology is used to enhance human potential, rather than replace it.

This article is adapted from a keynote speech Silke Mischke delivered at the Global Female Leaders Summit 2023 in Berlin.


Silke executive coach

Silke Mischke

IECC Co-Program Director and Senior Executive Coach

She works as a leadership lecturer and senior executive coach. She holds a doctorate in business administration and a master’s degree in Cognitive Psychology. Silke is licensed to administer and interpret several instruments to illuminate individual and group preferences and growth potential. Her coaching and teaching activities cover work with teams and individuals from international organizations.


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