In The Dread Of Obsolescence

No, this isn’t about your new iPhone being made obsolete. This post is about the looming feeling of dread being experienced by managers who see themselves being automated out of a job in the years ahead. How to turn this feeling into an opportunity for change?

The cherished jobs of managerial types may soon be handed over to machines. A survey of a wide group of managers, conducted by the consulting firm Accenture, recently revealed their attitudes on cognitive computing and the future of the workforce. The CNBC article on the study summarizes the finding:

The study — conducted in August and September of this year across 17 different industries — surveyed more than 1,700 managers and found that while many managers believe intelligent machines will make them more effective, some are concerned these machines may threaten their jobs in the future.

Apparently the reason for the manager’s concern is that they spend most of their time on tasks that they feel could be automated in the future. What is that feeling exactly? Let’s call this somewhat humbling, potentially humiliating feeling, “the dread of obsolescence.”

As you know, the term obsolescence is usually ascribed to an “object, service, or practice” (via Wikipedia) that is no longer wanted despite being in good working order. Combine this with feeling of dread and you get the fearful anticipation that the work you do will soon be done by the next best  (inhuman) thing.

Many of the working people I know enjoy their workday moments of monotony — especially if a number of their other work duties are sporadic and stressful.  Predictable patterns give time and space to do the ‘simple stuff’. Quite simply, these are their everyday duties and routines. Routines have been called the “life blood” of organizations, but steadily the pulsating flow of life is robotic.

Humble yourself or be made obsolete

Let’s step back from the situation to look at humility for a moment. Consider, “being humbled” as a reasonable response to the dread. The argument I’m making is that managers should accept the fear of being made obsolete with humility. The low cost of automation, along with higher quality algorithmic outputs will surely make the executive decision easier. Once managers accept this likely reality, new strategies can be learned by to retain relevancy.

There is an interesting article in Forbes by Ed Hess, Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at UVA’s Darden School of Business, about the value of humility. In his analysis, humility is the core skill for retaining your job in “The Smart Machine Age.”

Machines, Hess explains, will displace many workers in many industries who engage in repetitive, linear processes, while those workers who are needed for jobs involving “complex critical thinking, creativity, innovative thinking, high emotional engagement or perceptual problem solving” will be safe.

Unfreezing to learn from social complexity

Unsurprisingly, Hess anticipates that there will be an increase in training programs to help professionals survive by developing “critical thinking, innovative thinking and high emotional and social intelligence capabilities.” At the heart of developing these capabilities is humility and learning processes that help people manage their egos, along with their thinking and emotions.

The dread of obsolescence can be said to function as a “humility-inducing” experience, which challenges the managerial ego to detach from controllable routines, then nudged toward managing complexity with humility. In the context of organizational change, this is akin to Kurt Lewin’s model of “Unfreezing,” or creating a controllable crisis that triggers the motivation for the managers to seek out a new equilibrium by changing.

It is uncertain to me how much of humility is a matter of fixed personality and how much can be learned. Managers that recognize the threat of automation, however, would likely see the benefits of humility as described by Ed Hess below, and want improve their character as such:

Humility enables more open-mindedness, better reflective listening and more effective collaboration—all of which are necessary for high-quality critical and innovative thinking and high emotional engagement with others.

Bottom line for managers: When your mechanical job tasks are to be replaced by something inhuman, learn to be more than your average managerial-type human by cultivating humility.

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In The Dread Of Obsolescence

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