As we’ve gained more insight into what AI can and cannot do, there’s a greater sense that it will augment people’s work rather than replace them. However, for this expansion to be effective, it is very likely that we will need to rethink the processes we use at work so that the technology’s potential is fully exploited.
Research from the University of Georgia, however, believes that this ability to collaborate effectively with people can be hindered by our perception of what is right in the workplace. The study argues that the traits we typically value at work, such as conscientiousness, are also things AI often thrives on, creating a useless overlap of strengths.
Help or hinder
It is widely believed that conscientious employees are strong performers at work, due to their focus on details and generally strong work ethic. Such collaborators have also received much support from the range of tools developed over the course of the 20th century, including computers and the Internet.
This virtuous cycle leads organizations, recruiters, and HR managers to value employees who are highly conscientious, whether in recruiting, development, or promotion. However, the researchers believe that these characteristics may not be a good fit for the AI era.
They argue that technology is useful in the workplace when it complements human capabilities. Even when we choose human collaborators, we tend to prefer those that complement our own characteristics rather than replicate them.
This has been all too evident throughout history. Behind Steve Jobs, for example, was Steve Wozniak. Behind Martin Luther King was Ralph Abernathy, behind Lennon was McCarthy and behind Vincent van Gogh was his brother Theo. While the charismatic person in any partnership tended to turn heads, their success wouldn’t have been possible without the “straight guy” working alongside them (and vice versa).
“When we choose people to work with, we don’t tend to choose people who are identical to us because that would be a waste of time and talent,” Massimo Ruffolo, founder and CEO of Altilia, an AI-based platform that helps enterprises automate complex tasks, says. “It’s exactly the same with technology, and if we really want to achieve intelligent automation, we need to think about the kinds of things that technologies like AI can do well and the kinds of things that people continue to do well.”
Our selection of technology tools is no different. As Ajay Agrawal, Avi Goldfarb and Joshua Gans argue, AI is primarily a “prediction machineenabling accurate and detailed work to be performed. These are traits that the Georgia study also finds are the traits we value in our best employees, who can create significant overlaps rather than complementary mergers.
As a result, the researchers hypothesize that conscientiousness at work may become obsolete with the advent of AI-driven technology. This obviously has implications for those individuals, but also for the productivity of our organizations, as the technologies we introduce may not deliver the benefits we expect.
The researchers conducted a number of studies in the United States, Malaysia and Taiwan, and in each of them they found that when conscientious people were paired with AI tools, their performance actually worsened than that of their less conscientious peers.
This drop in performance was primarily because the capabilities of the AI tools conflicted with the strong desire of conscientious employees to maintain a high level of control and autonomy over their work. This not only led to frustration, but also to a decrease in employee confidence. In addition, there was a heightened sense of ambiguity about what exactly their responsibilities were.
This obviously has some pretty significant implications for managers, both in terms of how technology is being introduced into the workplace and the kind of skills and attributes we’re looking for in employees when they’re working alongside the new technologies.
It is quite possible that the old norms around hiring conscientious employees are no longer relevant and even pose a risk to their productivity as individuals and to the organization more broadly. While one possible approach would, of course, be to reduce the emphasis on conscientiousness, this is probably not feasible or desirable.
It might be worth considering how man and machine can and cannot merge. For example, Research from Accenture suggests that the most important skills when working with AI and robotics are probably soft skills such as creativity, emotional intelligence and critical thinking. So for roles where working with AI is important, these skills might come to the fore.
Then, if tasks don’t require so much collaboration with technology, people who score high on conscientiousness can come forward. To keep your conscientious employees motivated, it may also be worth ensuring that they have sufficient autonomy and control over their work.
This may not be a significant break from management norms, but the research is a timely reminder that many of our standard management practices were carved into the 20th century based on 20th century tools and technologies. If we want to reap the benefits of the various technologies of the 4th industrial revolution, it is very likely that our ways of managing will also have to be adapted.