How to Lead on AI

The technology’s growth has exacerbated fears among staff that we’ve engineered them out of their jobs. Clear goals and straight talk can help.

American CEOs are all-in on AI. According to a new survey by KPMG, their enthusiasm for adopting generative AI tools has accelerated, now that they see it as “central to overcoming challenges resulting from compound volatility and gaining a competitive advantage.” Thirty-nine percent of CEOs say they plan to move AI projects out of the pilot phase in the next 12-18 months, and a similar percentage say they plan to increase their investment in the technology.

Concerns? CEOs have a few, but they generally say they’re able to handle it: More than two-thirds say they’re prepared to address the cybersecurity and ethical issues generative AI presents. As for what this all means for their staffs, that’s a little iffier: 61 percent say they’re prepared to address employee resistance to AI, and 27 percent say that employee resistance is a “top challenge” for more fully deploying it.

Those numbers suggest that there’s a conversation that leaders aren’t having with their people about what they want AI to do, and what role the workforce plays in it. A recent survey from IBM found that anxiety among workers over AI eating everything in sight—including their jobs—remains persistent. A majority of CEOs in the survey said they’re adopting it faster than some are comfortable with. As the report puts it: “Many employees see generative AI as something that’s happening TO them, not a tool that works FOR them.”

Many employees see generative AI as something that’s happening to them, not a tool that works for them.

Like any sea change in technology, leaders will need to get buy-in from their people, and that means developing clarity about what the organization’s goals around AI are, and communicating those goals. The IBM report includes some helpful guidance around this, noting that the technology is there to “eliminate friction from the employee experience,” not replace the employee. But to make that point in earnest, the report says, leaders need to drill into employees’ reasons for pushback, and show how technology can ease their burdens. 

On top of that, leaders should be training up on the technology, framed around the idea that the technology serves the organization’s culture, not the other way around. The KPMG report has some optimistic data on this front: 95 percent of CEOs say they’ve invested in employee training around responsible generative AI use, 82 percent conduct regular assessments around its use, and 71 percent say they use human oversight for AI processes.

I’d like to see that last figure grow a little higher; it’s also troubling to see that barely half of CEOs have established ethical guidelines for their organizations around AI use, and only 37 percent have implemented privacy measures. (More CEOs say to plan those things in the coming year.) Conversations around new technology for workers and members often boil down to questions about trust. Do your people have faith that you understand the pros and cons of what you’re introducing to their daily lives? Do they feel that you’re well prepared to address the inevitable tensions and frustrations that will arise?

“Until they’re convinced, they won’t take the initiative to rethink how work is done,” the IBM report says. Good leaders are buy-in experts; they know how to persuade boards, members, and staffs to think strategically about all manner of issues. As AI rapidly overwhelms how work is done, they’ll have to work to build buy-in around that as well.

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