To AI or Not to AI: The Question is When, Not If
At Potential Project, we believe that the best leaders are human leaders. So, what to think about the role that artificial intelligence (AI) can play in leadership? Threat or opportunity? Fad or fact? To go deeper into the question, we recently surveyed a cross-section of people across multiple industries to capture perceptions and experiences.
We learned that employees already have strong confidence in and a preference for AI in certain areas of leadership. And at the same time, they still crave and prefer the leadership of a human being in key areas, even if that humanity brings flaws and messiness. This is both good news and a call to action for leaders. The time is now for understanding and leveraging the unmistakable benefits of AI. At the same time, it’s the moment to embrace and deepen your uniquely human qualities as a leader. There is a way to do both.
Lean Into Al
AI can analyze vast amounts of data and identify patterns more accurately than any human being. It has the potential to be less biased than we humans who are influenced by emotions, prejudices, and personal history. This means that AI can excel in the areas of strategy and decision-making. And the good news is that employees seem ready to follow a strategy created by AI. Notably, 65% of respondents in our survey were “somewhat” to “completely confident” in AI’s ability to develop a strategy.
AI can also bring more consistency than human leaders, which is beneficial in certain areas of leadership like planning, work assignments, and work prioritization. The use of artificial intelligence in these areas minimizes the influence of a leader’s mental state, biases, personal situation, or other human factors. Respondents in our survey reported being comfortable with AI playing a role in analyzing their work habits and performance and optimizing actions and decisions. 23% of respondents are “neutral” on this topic and 43% are “comfortable” or “very comfortable”. One employee from a global consulting firm shared, “In my career I have often experienced leaders who didn’t understand my area of expertise and were mostly focused on their own advancement. In many cases, I think I would have been better off with an AI bot that could be precise, unbiased, and uber-smart in how to develop me and guide my work.”
Interestingly and perhaps surprisingly, 45% of respondents indicated that they are “comfortable” or “very comfortable” getting AI-driven performance feedback, as long as it is positive feedback (more on this in the next section). Perhaps this is because AI can compile and provide more personalized and timely feedback on one’s performance which accurately highlights strengths and areas of improvement and offers guidance, training, or other resources to support growth.
Using AI in areas that rely on or benefit from objective analyses and logic is a smart choice for leaders who aim to be more employee-centered. With AI, you can replace the inevitable presence of human emotions and prejudices – often manifested in company politics, personal agendas, and cross-functional infighting – with something more consistent, reliable, and unbiased. When that happens, employees can exhale a bit and feel more confident that sound and stable decision-making and planning is driving the company forward, and that strategic actions are leading to business success and a positive future for the organization.
Double Down on Human
As much as AI has the potential to be a great support for leaders, it has its limitations. Though we often think of work as organized, professional and calibrated, in reality work is full of messy dynamics, insecurities, personal agendas and hopes. Why? Because we are all just humans showing up at work. And it is in these very human areas where AI has its greatest limitations. Our research found that people have limited trust that AI can understand human behavior at work better than real leaders (57% don’t trust and 22% are neutral). Moreover, 60% of respondents are concerned about the possibility of AI analyzing and leveraging employee emotions for decisions.
The above is supported by academic research which finds that employees have underlying distrust and discomfort with AI when it comes to personal matters. People worry about how AI might misuse or mishandle personal data, leading to feelings of vulnerability1. Many people harbor fears of discrimination if AI adopts prejudiced strategies and unjustly treats certain groups2. Others have fears about a lack of transparency and the “black box” in which AI decisions take place, opening up uncertainty about how recommendations are generated3.
Rather than fret about this resistance and the fact that AI’s scope will be limited, leaders should use these messages from employees as an indicator of where they should spend their time – in the very human, emotional parts of work that require care, transparency, and courageous conversations.
Nowhere is leadership transparency and candor more necessary and valuable than in the areas of hiring and promotions. Very few areas of our work lives trigger as much hope, anxiety, pride, or disappointment. For this reason, employees don’t want AI involved at all. When we asked in our research if people had concerns about using AI to make decisions about hiring, promotions, and work assignments based on its understanding of human behavior, 69% responded that they were “concerned” or “very concerned”. This is true, even though, as noted above, AI is less biased.
And, even though employees may be comfortable receiving positive performance feedback that is AI-generated as noted above, it is the reverse when it comes to negative performance feedback. In our survey, only 25% of respondents would be “comfortable” receiving negative feedback on job performance if it was generated by AI; 55% would be “uncomfortable”.
Embrace and Balance
In an AI-enabled future, leaders who leverage AI will have a distinct advantage through gains in productivity, efficiency, and improved decision-making. When used appropriately, AI can even help to increase employee confidence and trust in leadership and the organization. But employees still want and value human leaders, despite the shortfalls and blind spots that come along that. Leaders who deepen their ability to lead with humanity will win at attracting, retaining, developing, and motivating top talent. For all of us, this is an amazing opportunity: an opportunity to be more authentic, more connected, more human. This is a moment for all leaders to celebrate and believe in the power of humanness. Take this moment. Embrace it. And make it yours.
1. Li, J., & Huang, J. S. (2020). Dimensions of artificial intelligence anxiety based on the integrated fear acquisition theory. Technology in Society, 63, 101410.
Zhan, E. S., Molina, M. D., Rheu, M., & Peng, W. (2023). What is There to Fear? Understanding Multi-Dimensional Fear of AI from a Technological Affordance Perspective. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 1-18.
2. Lloyd, K. (2018). Bias amplification in artificial intelligence systems. arXiv preprint arXiv:1809.07842.
Das, E. J., & Walden, E. A. (2021). Why Do People Fear AI? Let’s Talk Morality.
3. Clarke, R. (2019). Why the world wants controls over Artificial Intelligence. Computer Law & Security Review, 35(4), 423-433.
Li, J., & Huang, J. S. (2020). Dimensions of artificial intelligence anxiety based on the integrated fear acquisition theory. Technology in Society, 63, 101410.