Artificial intelligence (AI) is not the first pathbreaking change we are navigating, nor will it be the last. As we think of leading through such a momentous change, a look at how we navigated past changes has valuable lessons for the present.
The role of a leader during such times of change is multifaceted and complex. This article posits that leaders need to lead in two dimensions.
First, leading people will be the primary focus of this article. This requires identifying three types of stakeholders and leading each of them very differently. The second, leading the application of the change itself, will receive a brief overview here.
Leading People: Understanding the Different Stakeholder Sets
We all perceive the impact of change differently. Calestous Juma wrote an enlightening paper for the World Economic Forum summarizing his book, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist Technologies. He analyzed past examples of groundbreaking innovations to show that society tends to reject new technologies when they substitute for, rather than augment, our humanity. On the other hand, we eagerly embrace them when they support our desire for inclusion, purpose, challenge, meaning and alignment with nature.
Let us break down Juma’s two responses to change using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Maslow’s theory posits that we all have five levels of needs. The most basic needs are physiological, followed by safety and security, then love and belonging, then self-esteem, and lastly at the apex is self-actualization.
Juma’s reference to "new technologies that substitute rather than augment" triggers a fear of unfulfilled "physiological and security" needs. These are basic needs, and any threat to them can be a source of immense anxiety.
Those experiencing a change from this lens show up as the "resistors" to change. They feel threatened that the upcoming change will replace them and their jobs. Hence, their response is largely emotional.
Now consider Juma’s reference to change that enhances purpose, challenge, meaning and inclusion. Such a view of change correlates with the self-esteem and self-actualization needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. If there are new ways of achieving one’s potential and elevating the work we do, that vision of self-fulfillment can be a strong motivator to embrace and drive change. Those experiencing a change in this manner tend to be the "change agents." The immense optimism generated by this response also makes it primarily emotional.
Most individuals fall somewhere on that change continuum and can be classified as "fence sitters." They are typically ambivalent toward the change and show some readiness to be persuaded by factual arguments as well as emotional ones.
Leading People: Influencing the Different Stakeholder Types
First, let us focus on those likely to embrace change — the change agents. They see AI as the panacea to the drudgery of programmatic and predictable work, and they see the possibility of how AI will free us to apply our intellect to more sophisticated problems and applications.
Communicating with these individuals involves articulating a two-to-five-year vision of the future accompanied by examples and details that make this future come alive. These are leaders’ change champions, so leaders should take the time to ask questions, engage these team members in reflection and push them to temper their sometimes-unbridled enthusiasm with reality checks. Leaders can leverage their expertise and energy as they define the strategy and plans to reach the vision.
The resistors, at the other end of the change spectrum, demand equal attention. The media is rife with opinion columns that predict how some jobs will be replaced by AI, and there is widespread fear of its negative impact. Hence, it is common to see team members fearing the impact of AI on the workforce and the personal implications for themselves.
These fears stem from a threat to the basic needs of physiology and security. One implication of Maslow’s theory is that it is very hard to focus on higher-level needs when basic needs like safety and security are not fulfilled. For this reason, trying to make "resistors" reimagine a change-adapted future at the outset will probably fall on deaf ears and only serve to escalate their anxieties.
As a first step, start by acknowledging their fears and understanding where they are coming from. Glossing over them prevents leaders from bringing their organizations along and truly being authentic. It is in a leader’s best interest to pay attention to their points of view while also tempering their extremely negative reactions with reality checks and examples of how past changes have ultimately led to positive outcomes.
The second step is to articulate the cost of "not changing." Borrowing Daniel Kahneman’s theory of loss aversion from his seminal book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, we can infer that people are more afraid to lose what they have, than seek pleasure in the possibility what they can gain. In other words, in situations where the status quo seems acceptable, people prefer to avoid losing what they have, than take a risk to gain what they do not currently have.
Hence, if change resistance is accompanied by a strong emotional response, the change message must start with articulating the loss or cost they will experience if they do not change.
The third step then is to clearly define the benefits of change itself. To recap, acknowledge the fear, listen carefully to articulated risks, share the cost of not changing, and then find the right time to introduce possibilities. Better still, let their change-agent peers introduce them to the possibilities.
Let us not forget about the fence-sitters, who are open to the appeal of the future, with some acknowledgment of risks. Unlike the other two groups, with fence sitters, leaders do not need to temper the extremes of enthusiasm or fear. However, they need to see a concrete reality, and this audience may push you to polish the finer aspects of your message.
Leaders are also likely to face the most incisive and data-based questions from this interested-yet-skeptical audience. This group, in conjunction with the change agents, can also help you integrate AI into your work more effectively by shifting perspective from the "or" to the "and" as defined in a 2020 MIT research brief, a very comprehensive analysis of the prospects of AI.
Successful integration of AI into our work and lives is about finding how AI will do what it does best and truly complement human efforts so we can continue to elevate our human capabilities. We co-exist with AI by co-opting it for the right ends; we do not get replaced by it.
While these three strategies to engage different kinds of stakeholders are useful, they cannot be successful unless accompanied by a journey of self-awareness.
Before leaders engage with stakeholders, they need to understand their own mindset and how their own preferences and response to this change are being consciously and unconsciously reflected in their messages. Some self-reflection questions: What words, phrases and responses belie their own propensity for risk-taking? Are they able to balance their messages and listen keenly to stakeholders without being unduly influenced by their own ingrained biases regarding AI?
At such times, an impartial and honest voice can be a leader’s most challenging yet best friend. Some examples are getting a coach or a mentor, role-playing with peers, and writing and rewriting messages for clarity and succinctness.
Leading the Application of Technology
We are all accountable to the people we lead and the customers we serve. So, we must take ownership of key decisions that will impact them. AI is a change whose impact will be felt across most jobs and all industries.
Whether you are a leader in health care or education or telecommunications, take the time to engage and learn about AI, how it is evolving, and what its application in your industry will be. Be prepared to make decisions on how it will show up in processes and products and how you will evaluate if it provides value for your organization. This means a leader must have the dexterity and judgment to be a change catalyst when an upside opportunity to leverage AI presents itself.
In addition, leaders need fast follower skills to scan the environment for use cases and quickly take action if they spot an opportunity they initially missed.
All this requires a leader to lean into curiosity and learn more about AI and its impact on work and lives. An intentional exercise to understand the origins of AI, its evolution and its impact will pay itself forward many times over. It is imperative that every leader invests in it and gets ahead of this knowledge curve.
Leaders will also need to grasp the frailties of AI. Since there is widespread literature on the possibilities of AI in positively transforming our work and lives, I will focus on a few risks in this section. AI is simply a machine learning tool that teaches itself to process data and make decisions. Hence, it is imbued with the frailties of its creators and comes with ingrained biases. Leaders should understand how these would play out in their own functions and organizations and ensure there are guardrails against these biases becoming systemic. Rigorous testing, pilots across diverse customer segments and robust feedback are crucial in ensuring that AI truly makes us better instead of perpetuating our existing imperfections.
Let us consider some other risks of AI that are not well understood today. AI reflects the data that it uses to evolve itself. As a result, it is subject to the risks of data poisoning. This involves manipulating the data set that the machine learning model uses to train itself, by injecting polluted data. Even small pockets of bad data can control the behavior of the AI and deliver false or skewed results.
Additionally, AI is subject to "alignment" problems. When AI is designed to single-mindedly pursue a goal set by a user, it can also act in other unintended ways that are harmful.
For example, an AI trained to single-mindedly make efficient choices will find every single way to do so, but it may lose sight of thoroughness or let bias creep in, during its relentless drive to efficiency.
Another drawback leaders should be aware of is that machine learning models are not transparent. A human could be asked to explain the logic programmed into a machine. But when a machine evolves and learns, it is very hard to decipher its journey of thought progression.
Making decisions while being faced with so many unknowns makes the role of a leader extremely complex at such times, and it demands the seamless integration of leading people and the application of technology.
The kind of industry a leader is operating in can have a big impact on how a leader leverages the three types of stakeholders. Consider first an industry like telecommunications, where technology is the engine of growth. Organizations in this industry are likely to have more change agents who are eager to embrace AI’s possibilities. Leaders themselves may belong to this group. In such organizations, a leader must lean to the uncomfortable and seek out the resistors to balance the voices in the room and pay keen attention to the risks they surface.
Now take pharmaceuticals, where technology is an enabler. Organizations in such industries are likely to have a large proportion of fence sitters and resistors. Leaders in these organizations would do well to hire and empower change agents who will be provocative and catalyze change.
Taking controlled risks through small pilots, engaging in deep analysis of these pilot outcomes and flexibly changing course have become critical leadership skills.
While doing all the above, leaders must ask the right questions, keenly build their knowledge, and listen to vastly different viewpoints to understand their implications. The most important ask from leaders today is to meet their stakeholders where they are.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of In the Lead magazine, from Buccino Leadership Institute. The bi-annual magazine focuses on leadership perspectives from the field of health care, with content that is curated from leaders across the industry who share lessons learned from real-world experiences.