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  • Writer's pictureLinda Kinning

Hard-Hitting Soft Skills: Equipping Workers for a Fearless Future with AI

With every new technology there are those that proclaim "this will change everything" with enthusiasm and those that hear those words and fear for their jobs. In a society that ties self-worth, health care, and social value to a job -- these fears are all the more heavy and carry real consequences.

While the story of technological advance and fear of displacement are as old as time, but the introduction of AI unique in two ways: speed and who is affected.

In no other time has technology advanced more quickly and been unleashed at such great scale. Adoption of the internet took decades, AI is taking months. We are living through one of the largest uncontrolled experiments ever conducted and it's affecting the entire economic ladder. The history of the Industrial Revolution was a steady march of technological advancements that made the business of making things more efficient and largely affected the makers of things.

The "robot revolution" fears of today's age have largely been fears of blue-collar workers, today's makers, losing out. The so called 'knowledge workers' -- lawyers, managers, writers, teachers, and the broadly defined category of 'business leaders' have been deemed safe.

But AI changes that. The most well-known public utilization of AI is in collecting, aggregating, and synthesizing knowledge.

The lawyers are scared, the managers are uncertain, and consultants are terrified that a chatbot can deliver business recommendations just as confidently as they can. I spoke with a group of students at one of the world's best business schools recently and was asked if there's a future for this skill set.

If workers feel like they have to compete with AI for their jobs -- the situation feels bleak. It doesn't have to be this way.

There's a more helpful -- and hopeful -- case for workers that doesn't require you to suddenly become a technical expert but instead leverages a uniquely human skillset: knowing how to best work with people.

When you think about the best manager you've had in your life (or wish to have), you're likely thinking of someone who can:

  • communicate clearly what they want and need from you

  • give concise, actionable feedback that helps you refine your work

  • help you think through a problem from beginning to end

  • coaches you supportively along the way

  • can spot the gaps and errors in your work

These are the skills that good leaders are known for and they are exactly the skills that are needed to effectively use AI.

The Facts

  1. AI models are trained on human data and reflect our very own human tendencies (for better and for worse)

  2. Much like humans, the decision making process of AI (the algorithms) are not fully understood.

  3. AI models have goals -- these goals are shaped by their underlying programming and can differ, but generally they want to be helpful, do a "good job" and continue interacting and learning from you

These models are rapidly evolving and technical expertise is required to build an underlying infrastructure that is responsible, ethical, and useful. But the majority of people won't work on the underlying technology -- they will work with artificial technology. This technology may be wrapped into products and interfaces that obscure the artificial intelligence altogether -- but all of us have the option to interact with AI models directly from sources like OpenAI's ChatGPT, Anthropic's, Microsoft's Copilot, or Google's Gemini (and the bevy of inevitable follow on models).

Here are the very human skills required to use these tools effectively.

Communicate clearly what you need and want AI to do

Technically this is called prompt engineering -- this is the query you are giving the AI. In manager speak, this is the goal and parameters you are asking someone to complete. It's helpful to think of this AI as an intern or direct report -- someone you believe you can mold to be most useful in your work with proper guidance and support.

Keep the language simple and straightforward. Chatbots are programmed to understand natural language, but overly complex sentences or jargon-heavy phrases can confuse them. By breaking down instructions and queries into clear, easy-to-follow steps, leaders can ensure the chatbot comprehends the task at hand.

Yes, I use please and thank you with my robots. It's for my own humanity

Help you think through a problem from beginning to end

Just like I can tell a colleague to "build a go to market strategy", I can tell AI to just write me an essay. But in both cases, working through the problem together builds a deeper understanding for both parties. I don't use AI to outsource my thinking, I rarely use it to outsource my writing, but much like how talking about an exciting project over the office water cooler can help you better understand your own thoughts -- using AI as a conversation partner can be a tool to more deeply interrogate and explore an idea.

Asking a chat bot to poke holes in your arguments can help you clarify your own thinking

Give concise, actionable feedback that helps you refine your work

Chatbots, like humans, need context to learn and be helpful. Like any working relationship you have to learn how you best communicate together. Learning to work with AI is much more like onboarding a new team member than installing a new computer system. Harness your best managerial patience and cultivate the skill of active listening when conversing with chatbots. Pay close attention to the chatbot's responses, ask clarifying questions, and provide constructive feedback to refine the communication process. This mutual exchange of information

Walking the chatbot through a writing process by asking it to expand on 1 topic first

Feedback on intention and what I want readers to experience

I wasn't getting the clarity I wanted, so I gave it a specific format

Coaches you supportively along the way

Admittedly, this is some of the most surreal and weirdest part of working with AI. We can see that it responds differently to the tone of prompts and can seemingly vibe check the human user. But we don't know exactly HOW. We know that AI models learn from the conversations we have with it and the underlying data comes from the sum of all the conversations generated. This is the least scientific tip on this list -- but in some ways it's the most important.

AI is a reflection of humanity. The way we talk with each other and to machines. We should default to kindness. Be nice.

Can spot the gaps and errors in your work

This one is HUGE. AI is very convincing at sounding like an expert -- and it can confidently give you misinformation (see hallucinations). Scams are as old as the internet, but social media enflamed misinformation and AI is set to test our limits of fact-checking and healthy media habits. Just as you wouldn't trust an intern to author your annual report unchecked, working effectively with AI requires the critical thinking skills to see what is not on the page.

The best kind of managers don't solely give you edits on the font size and slide deck color -- they tell you what parts of the story you're missing and where you need to focus. AI is really good at putting sentences together, good leaders are best at knowing which stories to tell.

Last but not least, learning how to lead in uncertainty

The skills above are tactical, practical skills for effectively managing AI. But perhaps the most valuable skill is learning how to lead yourself and others through uncertainty. Knowing how to say, "I don't know but I can figure it out". No one knows exactly how AI works. No one knows exactly how this technology will shape our society except to say profoundly.

Leading in this kind of environment is one of the hardest things to do -- and successful leaders will employ the kind of skill we have traditionally called "soft".

They know people (and machines) will make mistakes, but they cultivate a culture of experimentation and learn from them.

They don't have all the answers, but they ask poignant questions that point in the direction of discovery and knowledge.

They aren't afraid to fail and pivot and seek out expertise over protecting their own egos.

They see possibility and opportunity in points of transition and challenge.

Did AI write this essay? Will AI replace MY job?

I've been noodling on this idea for a few days now. It came to me while I was walking though my old graduate school campus and thinking about the phenomenal leadership skills I was taught and how I use them today. I was thinking about how to handle uncertainty, and the power of stories, and how fear can grip individuals and society into inaction that only serves to bring about our work nightmares.

I spoke with (human) colleagues of mine about this idea and it started to grow into an essay. I tossed a few theses around with my partner over a walk around the neighborhood. Today, I spent ~2 hours writing and I used AI as a sounding board.

I TRIED to get it to spit out this essay but it can't. It can generate unlimited versions of an essay on this topic and some of them are definitely posts I'd like and read online. But none of them are in my voice. None of them are this exact essay.

Most importantly, I wanted to spent 2 hours with this idea. This was fun for me and it deepens my own engagement with the idea. AI was a conversation partner that helped me exercise my very human instincts to think and explore and feel my way through an experience.

That's my hopeful vision for a future where AI is a tool that makes it easier for humans to focus on the things that make us flourish and feel most alive.

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1 Comment

Mark Sherfick
Mark Sherfick
Apr 16

Excellent information that is going to help others navigate the new and uncertain future of AI utilization. Way to go Linda.

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