Managers' four biggest AI challenges

AI provides answers, careless of the impact, while humans are looking for discretion and support

Whether you fall into the camp of those who believe artificial intelligence (AI) will take over the world and stamp out humanity, or the one that believes it will help save us from poverty, disease and environmental damage, AI is here and here to stay.

While most currently see AI as a way of enhancing the human experience – AI serving humans or releasing them from drudgery – its evolution means that one day soon it is likely to be an equal member of the team. Having just tackled the difficult task of dealing with four generations in the workforce, managers’ next test will be to lead diverse teams that include AI.

So what are the strengths of the AI team member? The CV would read: ‘excellent at deductive reasoning, data analytics, logic, faster Web searches and medical diagnoses, can recall more from reading material than humans, can work in deadly environments and get a PhD fast. No sense of humour, no morals, cannot understand nuance, and has no empathy.’ And the human? ‘Has tacit knowledge, can do inductive reasoning, understands uncertainty, can consider others’ feelings, is creative, empathic and can look you in the eye. Logic may be flawed, sees truth as a relative concept, and physically fragile.’

We’re almost dealing with opposites. So what are the biggest challenges for managers? I think there are four:

1. Establishing trust among team members

Trust means a multitude of things, but generally it’s about delivering what you promise coupled with the psychological contract of closeness and support. It is fundamental to success; as collaboration and alignment are central to survival in a hyper-competitive world. AI will be programmed to deliver what it can, fast, fulfilling the economic part of the bargain, while humans tend to be more fallible and prone to allow flexibility for special circumstances. It is the psychological contract that will be harder to manage. AI does the analysis and provides the answers, careless of the impact the perfect diagnosis may have, while humans are looking for discretion and support. The AI’s correct answers, delivered without thought for others’ feelings, could easily be interpreted by emotional humans as selfishness, ambition, lack of care, or all three. Managers will need to raise awareness and manage behaviour on both sides.

2. Confronting bias

Bias (conscious or unconscious) is a big hurdle to creating an inclusive work environment. AI will exacerbate this. Humans are programmed to feel instinctive liking for those of similar appearance, a well-known impediment to trust in multicultural teams. The current appearance of AI – completely robotic, solely a voice generated via computer, or a bot with a rather scary pastiche of a human face – are so dissimilar that overcoming first (and ongoing) impressions will need overt management. And the bias may be positive or negative, with some excitedly hopeful about what can be achieved alongside AI and others fearful for their jobs and their future.

3. Dealing with emotion

Change elicits a visceral response in humans but will pass largely unnoticed by AI, as just a different set of algorithms to run. The difference in reaction, with emotions ranging from fear to joy on the human side and apparent insouciance from AI, will lead to a charged atmosphere. This will need delicate handling.

4. Staying flexible

Command and control as a leadership style is patently unsuitable for a modern workforce, which expects its opinions to count, or a world where knowledge and ideas must be freely shared because no individual can find the right answer alone. Yet AI will not understand the nuances of suggestion and inference. Managers will need every ounce of self-insight and self-management to ensure that they flex their leadership style and re-invigorate command; a style that many younger managers may never have used.

Liz Mellon is editorial board chair at Duke Corporate Education and executive director at Authentic Leadership. She features on HR magazine's HR Most Influential Thinkers 2017 rnaking