Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will

by Geoff Colvin

“The number of people who wrongly believed they could never be replaced by a computer keeps growing.” So what are the skills in which humans can maintain a competitive advantage over machines?

“Skills of interaction are becoming the key to success… Now, as technology drives forward more powerfully every year, the transition to the newly valuable skills of empathizing, collaborating, creating, leading, and building relationships is happening faster than corporations, governments, education systems, or most human psyches can keep up with.” 


“To see how wrong things can go when teams don’t have a chance to build social capital, look at the statistics on airline mishaps, which are almost incredible. ‘The National Transportation Safety Board found that 73 percent of the incidents in its database occurred on a crew’s first day of flying together, before people had the chance to learn through experience how best to operate as a team.’”

The book includes a case study of effective team dynamics by the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team. The U.S. had lost five of the six previous tournaments. Paul Azinger, the 2008 team captain, tried something different, resulting in victory “by the largest margin of any of the rare U.S. victories over the previous 25 years… Other U.S. captains had paired golfers for their matches based on complementary golfing strengths… Social factors turned out to be far more powerful—even more powerful than having the world’s greatest golfer on the team… After 2008, America’s Ryder Cup captains abandoned the social-factors model and went back to more traditional strategies in 2010, 2012, and 2014. The U.S. lost every time.”

“Azinger’s plan assumed that the tiny nuances of human interaction would be critical. ‘A well-placed comment spoken at the right time can make a difference and lead to positive outcomes,’ he later explained. ‘A pat on the back or just catching someone’s eye and giving him a slight nod can reestablish confidence and change an outcome.’ Azinger had no way of knowing that researchers would later use clever technology to show how astoundingly true this is. ‘How you deliver a message is just as important as the message itself,’ he said. In fact, it’s far more important.”

The U.S. Army achieved dramatic performance improvements through the use of after-action reviews (AAR) following every training exercise and real combat engagement. Essentially, all participants across the ranks discuss glitches and how they could work better together.

Alex Pentland, director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory of MIT, consulted with a Bank of America call center where coworkers “were unlikely to run into each other very often… because the bank staggered break times in order to keep staffing levels steady… Pentland proposed that managers… give a whole twenty-person team their coffee break at the same time. In a call center of over 3,000 employees, it was easy to shift others’ breaks to maintain service. The result was that group members interacted more… and productivity rocketed. The effects were so clear that the bank switched to team-based breaks at all its call centers, estimating the move would save $15 million a year.”

Steve Jobs “insisted that Pixar’s new headquarters be designed around a central atrium; he then placed the café, mailboxes, conference rooms, and other elements so as to force people to criss-cross it… Jobs knew what makes teams work, and it isn’t e-mail.”

Wharton’s Adam Grant studied corporate cultures. “In a company with a giver culture, Grant says, employees are ‘helping others, sharing knowledge, offering mentoring, and making connections without expecting anything in return.’ … In a taker culture, by contrast, ‘the norm is to get as much as possible from others while contributing less in return. Employees help only when they expect the personal benefits to exceed the costs.’ … A giant meta-analysis of studies involving 51,000 people in companies found that giver behaviors were associated with higher productivity, efficiency, and profit; lower costs, employee turnover, and absenteeism; and greater customer satisfaction.” Grant’s advice: “Keep takers out.”

Innovation and Creativity

“MIT’s Peter Gloor and many others have pointed out that no effective innovation springs fully formed from its creator’s mind. It has to be developed, and the most successful innovators involve others in its development from the very beginning.”

A team of researchers from two U.S. universities and three European universities found that trust was critical to the creative process. “‘There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction to build up this trust.’ The finding that groups are more creative when their members trust one another helps explain a phenomenon frequently observed: that the most creative groups of all are often groups of two.”

“Research has shown that communication between engineers about technical matters, the kind of engagement on which innovation is based, depends on how far apart their desks are… Communication declines in proportion to the square of the distance.”

John Sullivan of San Francisco State University… concluded that “serendipitous interaction” is essential to innovation.


“Empathy is the foundation of all the other abilities that increasingly make people valuable as technology advances… Empathy is a skill, not a trait… Genuine empathy comprises two parts: discerning the thoughts and feelings of others, and responding appropriately.”

“A massive study of empathy in U.S. college students from 1979 to 2009 found a sharp decline, especially since 2000… It gets worse. Reinforcing the evidence of a generational shift are findings that U.S. college students are becoming more narcissistic. As you would expect, higher narcissism is strongly correlated with lower empathy… The researchers speculate that rising use of personal technology could be a factor.”

“Surging demand plus dwindling supply—that’s the formula for high value.”

Women have an advantage. “The deep distinction between men’s and women’s brains, argues Cambridge University research psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, is that men’s brains are ‘systemizing’ and women’s are ‘empathizing’… That’s a disadvantage for men, because “systemizing is exactly what technology is taking over.”

Colvin, Geoffrey. Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will. New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2016. Buy from

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