Maybe HR’s Focus Should Be Less Human

In a workforce increasingly dominated by robots, it’s time for people to stop operating on autopilot.

By Edward D. Hess December 1, 2014

1214-Cover.jpgRecently, one of my business students asked me, “How many MBAs does it take to manage a factory of robots?” That was not the start of a joke—it was a serious inquiry about his future. It’s the kind of question more of us are asking these days as we hear the predictions, from various credible sources, about how technological advances will transform the workforce. Most workplaces in the near future will be staffed by a combination of smart robots, machines powered by artificial intelligence and people.

The degree of labor upheaval that some researchers predict is difficult to comprehend. In a study published in 2013, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of the University of Oxford looked at 702 types of jobs in the United States and made judgments, on the basis of required skills and expected technological advances, about whether there was a low, medium or high risk that technology would displace workers over the next 10 to 20 years. Their conclusion: 47 percent of total U.S. employees are at high risk, and 19 percent are at medium risk, of being replaced. Even if they are only half right, the numbers are staggering.

What Is the New Mission Of HR?

In a workplace staffed by fewer “human resources,” what will be the mission of corporate HR? To answer that, we must have a clear understanding of the kinds of jobs that will still likely be done by people. Those jobs—according not just to Frey and Osborne but also to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age (W.W. Norton and Co., 2014), and John Kelly and Steve Hamm, authors of Smart Machines (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2013)—are ones that require perception, quick physical adaptation, creativity, innovative thinking, complex problem-solving, moral judgments, and high emotional and social intelligence.

Unfortunately for many of us, critical and innovative thinking and emotional and social intelligence do not come naturally, nor have we learned such skills in school or on the job. Developing those skills to the level that will give us a competitive edge will not be easy. Doing so is a two-pronged challenge—developmental and environmental—that corporate HR will face.

The Developmental Challenge

First, let’s look at the developmental challenge. The past 25 years of research in neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics and education have offered an unflattering portrait of the human thinker. We are highly efficient, fast, reflexive thinkers—but we mainly seek to confirm what we already know. As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman stated, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.” As a result, we are cognitively blind to challenging ideas, and our thinking is limited by our tendency to rationalize information that contradicts our beliefs and cognitive biases. In a nutshell, when we operate on autopilot, we are neither critical nor innovative. That is just part of our humanness.

Our emotions are another obstacle. Many neuroscientists, including Antonio Damasio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, believe that our emotions are integrally intertwined in most of our cognitive processing. In other words, rationality is a myth. Emotionally, we seek to affirm our self-image (ego), and we engage in the 3 D’s—deny, defend and deflect—to ward off challenges to it and our worldview. Fear is one of the emotions that comes all too naturally to most of us and makes it hard to engage in the messy work of critical thinking and innovation. This includes the fear of failure, the fear of looking bad and the fear of losing our job if we make mistakes.

Ironically, the new mission of HR will actually be to help people overcome some of their humanness. That requires daily personal developmental attention, individual mentoring and coaching, and real-time feedback. It takes time, it is hard work, and it is best done with the help of trusted others.

The Environmental Challenge

Learning how to think critically and innovatively—as well as to collaborate, be empathetic, give and receive feedback, and quiet one’s ego instead of reacting defensively—requires a special organizational environment. I’m talking here not just about culture but about an internal learning system that aligns culture, structure, processes, leadership behaviors, measurements and rewards to promote the desired mindsets and behaviors. Leading the design of this environment and maintaining it will be the second part of HR’s mission.

Research across disciplines has revealed the type of work environment that best enables us to overcome our limitations. It is one that is humanistic and emotionally positive and that results in trust, psychological safety, candor, intellectual humility, empathy and the mitigation of fear. Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of the humanistic psychology movement, aptly stated that an individual would engage in learning only “to the extent he is not crippled by fear, [and] to the extent he feels safe enough to dare.”

Building that environment requires many companies to adopt different mindsets about mistakes and what it means to be smart. Mistakes must be valued as learning opportunities. Being smart is not about always being right, nor is it about what or how much you know. Being smart is knowing what you don’t know—but need to—and using the best thinking, collaboration techniques and processes to learn it.

Meeting the Mission

Some companies are already on this journey. Bridgewater Associates, the biggest and one of the most successful hedge funds in the world, has built a leading-edge learning system designed to help employees overcome the cognitive and emotional inclinations that inhibit their thinking.

All Bridgewater employees, including senior management, participate in frequent “drill down” conversations meant to stress-test their beliefs, take their thinking to a higher level and illuminate weaknesses that interfere with logical thought. Everyone is urged to examine a problem as objectively as possible and not to let emotions hijack their thinking.

Other companies, such as Intuit, Pixar Animation Studios, IDEO and W.L. Gore & Associates, have developed similar learning systems. In fact, the learning systems have become the strategic essence of those organizations.

While the number of human workers doing some jobs will decrease as technology advances, the importance and depth of the cognitive and emotional development of human capital will materially increase. That type of human development requires a highly supportive work environment. Strategic survival may well depend on it.

Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. His 11th book, Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization, was published in September by Columbia Business School Publishing.

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