There’s no doubt the future of HR will be tech-enabled. Every HR professional is either using a tech feedback tool or looking around for one to implement. Many of these tools are excellent and the potential of automation within many aspects of our professional practice is enormous. But let’s not get too carried away. It’s not time to take the human out of human resources just yet.
Can artificial intelligence fix the inherent gender bias in our workplaces? That’s one of the questions posed by the entertaining Argentinean HR provocateur Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in his excellent new book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How To Fix It).
If you haven’t read his book or watched his TED Talk yet, then they should both be at the top of your reading and viewing lists.
Chamorro-Premuzic has the gift of saying what a lot of us think but don’t feel we can, and of backing-up his provocations with evidence. His primary assertion that the world is full of incompetent leaders, and most of them are men, is disarmingly undeniable. His explanation of why is backed by science.
He says incompetent men tend to rise to the top of orgnaisational structures because most companies concentrate precisely on the wrong traits when hiring. The trouble begins with the common human tendency to mistake confidence for competence. This leads companies to hire based on “charisma rather than humility, narcissistic tendencies rather than integrity”. And because these are traits more common in men, we tend to get more men rising to the top of management structures.
Did I mention he was provocative? He jumps right into the middle of one of the most hotly contested debates in psychology of the past generation - are there fundamental psychological differences between men and women? And if there are, which gender makes the better leader?
Chamorro-Premuzic refers to a study from University of Wisconsin academic Janet Shibley Hyde in 2014, who undertook a meta analysis from multiple studies. After analysing the vast swathes of data produced on the subject, Shibley Hyde’s conclusion was that there are indeed some slight differences between the genders. Among these differences are soft skills that are slightly more common in women and that predispose people to be better leaders. As Chamorro-Premuzic says “if leaders were selected on the basis of their emotional intelligence, self awareness, humility, integrity and coachability, the majority would be female rather than male.”
A Case for AI in HR?
On the surface, much of what Chamurro-Premuzic says creates a strong case for increasing the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in core HR practices like hiring.
The promise of AI is that it can minimise the unconscious biases that mark the human condition. The inherent biases in our world against women are well catalogued in many studies over the years. Men who talk a lot at work are rated more competent by the men and women they work with. If women talk as much as a powerful man they’re rated less competent by both men and women. We reward charismatic self-absorbed people, most often men, who display bravado with leadership positions. We underrate the people who would make far better leaders, who are empathetic and not overconfident about their technical abilities. These traits are more common in women than men.
The tech giants have taken a lot of flack for the gender imbalance of their workforces over the years. True to form they’ve sought a solution made from software. Hence the rise of AI algorithms to manage recruitment, and hopefully to remove unconscious bias from the process.
The problem is, the AI solutions to date only seem to have exacerbated the problem. When AI algorithms are trained to replicate human recruiters they don’t just replicate the problem, they tend to make them worse.
The issue led Amazon to abandon a secret project to automate it’s recruitment process late last year. The problem was with the nature of AI. The algorithm was trained to replicate the traits of Amazon’s most successful employees over the past ten years and - surprise, surprise - it began spitting out even more disproportionately large numbers of male CVs.
Anyone who has spent time with computer programmers will know the coders’ great adage: “garbage in, garbage out”. In this case we might match it with the HR professional’s version: “unconscious bias in, unconscious bias out”.
The potential for AI to get it wrong can actually turn sinister. This happened in 2016 when American public life watchdog organisation ProPublica exposed flaws in COMPAS, an algorithm designed to predict the likelihood of criminal reoffending to help guide sentencing in US courts. Problem is, according to ProPublica, COMPAS over predicts the likelihood of recidivism among black males. A more recent study from Dartmouth College found that COMPAS predicted the chances of reoffending with the same accuracy as a randomly selected stranger from the internet.
So what’s the answer?Acknowledgement, Anonymity and Action
So it seems technology still has a long way to go before removing our unconscious bias. And waiting for tech companies to completely automate HR so we can have diverse and inclusive workplaces is not the answer either.
But the technology does exist to create more inclusive, innovative, productive and happier workplaces. The key is not expecting it to do everything and using the technology as a tool to assist workplace leadership, not a crutch to replace it.
Many HR professionals are evaluating and implementing tech tools right now. As a guide to evaluating technology and understanding its potential to help you do your job, it’s useful to use the Three A’s of inclusive leadership as a framework: Acknowledgement, Anonymity and Action.
Step one is to acknowledge two things - first that a more inclusive workplace is critical to creating better organisational outcomes. Psychology has shown in study after study that diverse teams create better results. Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill has shown how diverse organisations that harness the input from everyone in teams that are diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender and thinking styles - are more innovative. She calls the result Collective Genius. And that should be the tech-enabled HR person’s first acknowledgement - HR’s future should be dedicated to building organisations that are able to harness and express their collective genius.
To do that they must seek the input and involvement of everyone who works there. There are plenty of workplace feedback tools on the market to gather this feedback. Selecting the tool is not the most important task for the tech enabled HR person. It’s making sure there’s a change in the attitude of the leaders within your organisation.
Leaders of the organisations that harness their collective genius make the commitment to embrace leadership by involvement. They become inclusive leaders by emphasising Tomas Chanorro-Premuzic’s female leadership traits - emotional intelligence, self awareness, humility, integrity and the ability to change the way they learn.
Critical to making the shift to leadership by involvement is acknowledging the structural barriers in the human mind toward inclusivity. Among these are unconscious bias against women we’ve already traversed. Additionally is what Nobel prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahnerman calls familiarity bias - the tendency for us to be attracted to people like us. When given the chance, most people will hire and take more seriously someone who reminds them of themselves. It’s human nature, and it’s an instinct that acts against our ability to make objective decisions and become inclusive leaders.
If we acknowledge that it can be counterproductive to trust our instincts, then the role of anonymous technology to enable more objective decision making becomes critical.
In the case of hiring, it means removing it means removing gender references from CVs. In 2012, Princeton University conducted a study to uncover a bias in male and female names on CVs. The study handed a mix of CVs with both male and female names to universities seeking a laboratory manager. The results showed the applicants that were seen as "significantly more competent and hireable” - were the CVs with male names.
Symphony orchestras were among the first organizations to acknowledge the power of anonymity when assessing job candidates. Blind auditions, where unseen players are judged on their playing ability alone, have been acknowledged as the vital spark that began the transformation of the percentage female players in the world’s top orchestras move from 5% to 25% in 20 years.
In the case of the plethora of new tech tools for gathering workplace feedback, anonymity is equally transformational. Anonymous feedback tools generate honest answers.
Our experience of gathering feedback data from thousands of Kiwi workers and managers via our AskYourTeam system, anonymity creates a culture of open honest and, perhaps surprising to some, positive feedback. Without anonymity team members are more likely to be less constructive in their feedback and more likely to predict the answer their bosses want to hear - that the status quo is fine.
The critical third A is Action. Without action, change is not possible. For inclusive leaders that means analysing the anonymous feedback from their teams and acting on what they hear.
One of the gurus of the tech-enabled future of HR, Josh Bersin, has measured the impact of action on employee engagement. Bersin’s analysis shows that employees with managers that create action plans based on their feedback and carry them out are 8 times more engaged than those with bosses who don’t ask for feedback and act on what they hear.
At AskYourTeam we help organisations and leaders create ongoing cycles of asking their teams for feedback, analysing the data they collate, building action plans based on what they have heard, and then asking for feedback again to gauge the impact of their actions.
The system we have developed at AskYourTeam doesn’t assume. It’s anonymity ensures employee honesty, and the outputs present clear data, allowing for immediate implementation of organisational changes.
Systems like AskYourTeam give HR professionals the ability to empower leaders inside organisations. These systems can show a leader where they should direct their energy, and give them a clear guide for the actions they should undertake to have the greatest impact on improving the productivity of their organisation.
And in the end, perhaps this provides us with a window into the role technology can play in the future of the HR profession. Technology will not replace the human factor, but it has profound potential to temper the most negative aspects of our human instincts. Tech won’t replace humans, but it just might make us better humans.
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