The threat of artificially intelligent managers may seem daunting, but leadership roles are too nuanced to be replaced by machines, says Paul Rogers, director at MOL. He explains why making sure the right people are promoted into senior roles will boost productivity far beyond what AI can achieve
I read an article recently about the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) taking the role of managers in business.
My first instinct was that this would never work, but then I wondered why I took this view. I’m not anti-technology or against the automation of mundane tasks, so why did I think that machines cannot be successful people managers?
The fact that someone is even considering that a machine can do management “tasks” shows that management is still something to which we don’t ascribe enough credit.
In many organisations, you get promoted, you become a people manager, and barely get any training or time away from the “day job” to, well, manage.
Becoming a manager is often the only career route up an organisation and therefore attracts people who want to enhance their career, not necessarily people who want to lead and inspire their fellow colleagues.
This path leads to dangerous assumptions. To presume that technical skillsets and experience automatically prepare employees for management may be a path well-trodden in the UK, but it’s far from the most efficient way of structuring a business.
Losing the race for productivity
In isolation, a poor manager can frustrate a team, but on a grander scale it can lead to wholesale inefficiencies. For years, businesses in the UK have fallen far behind the workplace productivity levels of their counterparts in Europe.
The Productivity Leaders Group, comprising senior figures from household names such as John Lewis, Nestle and Channel 4, estimates that the UK is missing out on £130bn in output every year.
Meanwhile in Denmark, despite employees working fewer hours each week, their productivity is far higher. It’s a similar story in other European states such as Germany, Sweden, Norway and Netherlands.
You’ll have to scroll down that list of labour productivity for a while before you reach the UK.
That the UK lags behind its European counterparts is not news. In fact, our decade-long ‘productivity puzzle’ has been widely acknowledged by institutions and experts including Bank of England.
We can’t flick a switch to reverse this trend, but we can take action.
The formula for good management
A 2017 Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey found a strong correlation between management practices and productivity.
Good management can increase productivity by around 10 per cent, so it stands to reason that we should tap into this, but to do so we must ensure we have the right managers occupying these positions of positive influence.
Take a moment to think about the best and worst bosses you’ve ever had. What made them good or bad in your opinion was probably not their technical ability but their managerial skillset.
Key leadership characteristics and people skills such as empathy, feedback and emotional intelligence are vital in leading an enthused and productive team.
Identifying positive managerial traits and potential in individuals is a much better bet for a company than promoting the most obvious candidate.
Being a successful manager is about more than just in-situ performance, so we should look to assess employees irrespective of how we perceive they are performing.
And just because an employee doesn’t display the aptitude for a managerial role, it doesn’t mean they aren’t right for a promotion.
We should move away from looking at promotions as a linear road, instead developing two routes for progression; the first focusing on those whose technical ability excels and the second for those with managerial promise.
Right place, right time
It’s time for UK businesses to make a cultural shift. We need to get the right talent into managerial positions, and to do that we need to make some tough decisions.
Identifying the right talent to promote to the right role is one step, but it’s just as crucial to consider how new managers are inducted into these roles.
Equipping them with leadership and management training and qualifications before they reach this level, rather than after, will enable them to carry momentum into their promotion. And a qualified, skilled manager is much more likely to tap into that 10 per cent productivity increase in their employees.
It is something the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) are understandably passionate about and their research backs it up. Over 85 per cent of managers agreed their qualification improved both theirs and their teams’ performance.
Bridging the productivity gap isn’t just about ploughing money into training and qualifications though; it’s about organisations in the UK appreciating that something needs to change.
While there may be a role for AI in the future to help with some aspects of management, the most important elements of management are as complicated and nuanced as the people in the team you manage. AI may even free us up to focus more on these skills, and help the UK become one of the most productive nations in Europe.
Paul Rogers is a product director at MOL. MOL offers a wide range of professional qualification courses, including CMI Level 3 and 5 management courses – click here to find out more