Empathetic leadership Inclusive design


At the heart of creative work, collaboration helps us make the best work we can. With automation becoming a larger part of our day to day processes, there is still a very human need for good communication. Olga Kruglova tells us why emotional intelligence remains one of the most important skills to have.

20 February 2023 • 5 min read

Benjamin Sutern | Pexels

Automation is really keeping us on our toes, and digital product design is no exception. Not only is it convenient but it saves us time; and therefore expense. As we brace ourselves for a recession in the UK, time has never been so valuable for productivity and for UX, automation brings us some respite, as we rely increasingly on digital systems and programmes to maintain and facilitate our design work. But hard skills are one thing. What other skills do we need to develop to keep our creative roles in demand?

The need for upskilling is more crucial now than ever. In a LinkedIn comparison of skills that members listed as most important from 2015 to 2021, they found that 25% of those skills had changed over six years (1). Given the acceleration in automation during the pandemic, the social network suggests another 39-44% of key skills could change again by 2025. This rapid rate of change and reliance on technology means that hard skills in digital design are reaching beyond designers and into other roles too. For example, while mentoring at a student startup accelerator, a group of students showed me a mobile prototype made in the collaborative design programme, Figma (2). I asked who of the attendees studied design: one was from aerospace, another studied bioinformatics, and the third studied maths. Design tools now have such intuitive design, and such a smooth learning experience, that design software such as Figma and Sketch aren’t even niche skills anymore.

So if it isn’t the hard skills that make us experts, what is it? Personally, if I were to consider upskilling or pivoting profession now, the question I’d ask myself is, what skills were valuable 100 years ago that still will be in 100 years’ time? In our increasingly automated ways of working, design assembly could soon be done by robots. But what does a human have that AI does not? The answer is simple: our emotional intelligence.


Among the various opportunities that automation in design brings, there are still challenges I face that require both critical and creative thinking that a robot can not yet do. If we think about the capabilities of AI and its role in problem solving, idea generation and blue sky thinking – which is the concept of ‘creative ideas that are not limited by current thinking or belief’ (3) – these still come down to the role of the human. If AI learns to function based on data we feed it, is it able to propose solutions that do not yet exist?

Robots, as of yet, are not able to grasp emotional intelligence which humans learn through socialising, given that emotions are so hard to define. Robots can learn what we programme them to, but the ability to read, understand and respond to human emotion is a more complex skill that even some people struggle to develop. Some emotions aren’t always what they seem – humans are complex and sometimes controversial beings with a set of internal reactions that can be hard to scan. Could a robot understand the nuances of passive aggression, for example? Besides Siri’s jokes, I’m not sure robots have a particularly astute sense of humour either, particularly when it comes to sarcasm.

Why is this even relevant? Well, to understand a customer, we need to understand their needs. At the end of the day, we’re talking about user experience. This relies on taking feedback from a user, and reconfiguring a product based on convenience and accessibility of those consumer needs. We also need to be able to work with a team of people to collaborate towards this shared aim.


Perhaps, until now, given its somewhat abstract nature, you’ve never considered emotional intelligence as a marketable skill. If this is so, then you might be wondering how to define and develop it.

Emotional intelligence is more difficult to learn than a skill you can learn from a how-to video. And according to Forbes, it is now valued more than ever by employers (4). So what is it? Emotional intelligence is about the complexities and nuances of body language, our environment, and how we interpret social dynamics from our personal experiences that we have developed over our lives to build authentic and congruent relationships.

So how can we develop our emotional intelligence? One route is through mentorship, which relies on the maintenance of a professional, empathetic and communicative relationship. Having been both a mentee and a mentor, I find it extremely useful and rewarding for both sides. A key aspect of being a mentee involves receiving wisdom and advice from the experiences of our mentor, which stretches our listening and interpretation skills. As a mentor, your role involves the skill of giving constructive feedback as well as being asked questions in a context you may have been unfamiliar with until now, where clarity and empathy are key.


One of the most important aspects of emotional intelligence is the ability to receive and give constructive criticism. When I first started in my current role, I was often pushed to show my drafts and I was totally terrified by it. What if my designer mates could see clumsy sketches and unaligned buttons, dividers and paragraphs? But over time, I realised that as a designer, my colleagues who give feedback from the position of wanting to help or give a different perspective, really benefit my finished work.

It’s an art for leaders and teams to create a collaborative environment, where people are willing to share their ideas and work. For an individual it’s very important to feel safe and I think part of creating such conditions is showing your own vulnerability and humanity and not getting scared of mistakes or inaccuracies. It’s okay not to choose the best path at first, it’s okay to fail the first attempt and it’s okay not to know something. This is where the value of collaborating can be found, as it takes your (or a team’s) work from good to great.

Studies have proven the link between emotional intelligence and career success (5), job performance (6), and stronger mental health. Some sources state it’s a built-in trait, and some – that it can be learnt. My personal advice would be: start with yourself. When you catch yourself feeling or experiencing a negative emotion, if it’s possible to identify what it is, you’re halfway there. Then you can try to understand what triggered it. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with negative emotions, but when you can identify them, accept them and respond to them appropriately, that’s how you build resilience.

The other key to emotional intelligence that will enable collaboration is having curiosity about other people. Not everyone communicates in the same way and that’s the beauty of what makes us human; that we are all different. Noticing how people behave in different situations is not only fascinating but also useful in building better connections with them.

The route to developing emotional intelligence, I believe, is effective communication. You can practice this through interacting within a team, producing work in collaboration with and supporting the development of others by assessing quality and giving feedback, and navigating the often tricky dynamics of stakeholder management. This creates a lot of room for interactions where emotions are involved, including conflicts and potential resolution. Being aware of your own and others’ feelings and thinking can be just the ticket to cultivating a positive and productive environment where creative collaboration can thrive.


(1) ‘Six insights into how business can bridge the skills gap’, Andrew Hill, www.ft.com/content/3d7f546c-723c-4c95-baf7-6954c891dbce

(2) www.figma.com

(3) ‘4 Reasons Why Blue-Sky Thinking Will Power You To Spectacular Results!’, Srinivasan R, www.linkedin.com/pulse/4-reasons-why-blue-sky-thinking-power-you-spectacular-srinivasan-r

(4) ‘The Top 10 Most In-Demand Skills For The Next 10 Years’, Bernard Marr, 22 Aug 2022, www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2022/08/22/the-top-10-most-in-demand-skills-for-the-next-10-years/?sh=590c6adb17be

(5) ‘The Contribution of Emotional Intelligence to Career Success: Beyond Personality Traits’; Itziar Urquijo, Natalio Extremera and Garazi Azanza; www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6926721

(6) ‘Evidence that emotional intelligence is related to job performance and affect and attitudes at work’; Paulo N Lopes, Daisy Grewal, Jessica K Pepper, Michelle Gall; www.researchgate.net/publication/6509291_Evidence_that_emotional_intelligence_is_related_to_job_performance_and_affect_and_attitudes_at_work

Empathetic leadership Inclusive design

Discover more in

Empathetic leadership