Artificial intelligence is the technology of the hour, generating hand-wringing and excitement in equal measure. AHRI National Convention and Exhibition speaker Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains why the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s career is split across academia, consulting and non-fiction writing. Connecting these various strands is an overarching philosophy: applying science and technology to understand human performance, and improve organisations’ decisions at scale.
“Whether it’s a humanitarian group or a big banking firm, the problems organisations have are always the same: how to manage people and ensure power is allocated to good employees rather than the bad ones,” says Chamorro-Premuzic.
The solution, he says, may be artificial intelligence. An extension of data-driven analytics, translated into insights, AI could debias organisations’ decision-making – benefitting employers and the workforce.
“My assumption is most organisations mean it when they say they want to make workplaces more meritocratic. But to do so, you need to enable everyone to have access to opportunities, matching the right person to the right job and career – and AI is a means of making more rational and objective decisions.”
However, he says there’s a crucial caveat – the same technology, wielded incorrectly, has the potential to exacerbate deep-lying organisational and societal issues.
This is the topic Chamorro-Premuzic will be discussing at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition in August, which he’ll be attending virtually. It follows the publication of his latest book, I, Human: AI, Automation, and the Quest to Reclaim What Makes Us Unique.
“If applied well, AI can help organisations understand their talent better, hire from deeper talent pools and boost diversity and inclusion,” he says. “The danger lies in how the data is trained: if it’s contaminated with individual preferences, then an algorithm may always recommend a certain kind of person for a leadership role – one that’s based on human biases.”
Predicting performance with AI
Chamorro-Premuzic was born and raised in the Buenos Aires district of Villa Freud, affectionately named after the founding father of psychoanalysis. The micro-neighbourhood is home to a high concentration of Argentina’s therapists – the South American nation has the most psychologists per capita in the world.
He attributes some of the country’s rich psychotherapy history to its various crises over the decades.
“It’s a country with many human and natural resources, yet one that’s perpetually declining and unable to seemingly organise itself collectively,” he says.
Chamorro-Premuzic began his career in clinical psychology, focusing on humans’ more dysfunctional traits, such as people with severe antisocial behaviours. He then made the switch to organisational psychology, taking roles in London and, more recently, New York.
Alongside being a Professor of Business Psychology at both University College London and Columbia University, he’s lectured at Harvard Business School and Stanford Business School. His commercial work includes collaborating with non-profits such as the United Nations and the World Bank; clients also include major corporations, such as JP Morgan and Google. Among his current roles is Chief Innovation Officer at global staffing firm ManpowerGroup.
“After being so focused on a clinical job in which you can rarely help people who are truly medicated, I decided to focus on something more productive,” he says. “I then discovered narcissists and psychopaths exist in organisations, too.
“But as an organisational psychologist, I knew that I could create much more impact and benefit in systems and structures than dealing with psychopathology in individuals.”
“It falls on HR to understand how these tools can augment and elevate talent. We need to ask ourselves how we can make our jobs more creative and less predictable so we stay relevant.” – Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Psychologist, author and entrepreneur
Human DNA is encoded with unconscious biases: cognitive shortcuts and instincts that enabled our ancestors to survive. Society may have evolved, but our minds haven’t – the same snap decision-making processes that were once vital for the wilderness are now executed in boardrooms. Chamorro-Premuzic says this explains why so many organisations end up with incompetent managers.
“We tend to trust our intuitions. We assume someone who sounds assertive has substance behind them; we reward people who seem likeable and charismatic but are actually narcissistic. But it’s actually individuals who may be more introverted that often make for better leaders.”
AI is already being leveraged in recruitment and skills-based hiring, typically determining a candidate’s ‘soft’ skills, such as communication and teamwork, through data-driven personality assessments that match job seekers against vacancies. The technology is also helping hiring managers combat their bias towards hard skills.
“When people think of talent, there’s still a very traditional mindset that overestimates a candidate’s credentials over their softer skills. Someone may have an amazing leadership profile, but organisations prefer appointing someone based on their qualifications.
“But, fundamentally, it’s easier to hire the right person for the right role than to try to change the person in a role. That’s despite HR typically focusing much of its budget on learning and development.
“Recruitment is more of a science, development is more of an art. When you make a bad hire, you have to spend more money on training. But get the right hire, and training boosts them exponentially.
Adding AI to HR
Chamorro-Premuzic says AI is still in its infancy – it’s the equivalent to the dial-up phase of the internet. He advises that people leaders needn’t be dazzled nor baffled by the emerging technology. Rather, it’s a tool: a device that, when properly applied, can enable organisations and employees to overcome their inherent weaknesses.
“The key is approaching it in the right way – organisations often start with solutions rather than the problems. Rather than think, ‘How can we use OpenAI and Microsoft 365 Copilot?’, they should be diagnosing their greatest issues in hiring, managing and innovating – and then see how AI could help.”
The irony of AI is that it may enable HR to humanise organisations more than ever before, he says. Natural language processing could be used in coaching sessions to detect when an employee is motivated, disengaged or depressed. Productivity tools could notify a meeting host when they should let an attendee speak. Hiring algorithms, inoculated from human biases, could create more diverse and inclusive workplaces.
Many employees are, of course, already using AI. ChatGPT has become the fastest growing online platform ever, reaching 100 million users before even Instagram and TikTok. Even from basic prompts, the program can complete complex written tasks in moments – an efficiency tool that can generate email drafts, lines of code or presentation ideas.
For Chamorro-Premuzic, this generative AI has the potential to create huge productivity gains, freeing employees from mundane tasks so they can focus on their creative, specialist work. But it also highlights an unspoken truth about knowledge work: many jobs are composed of routine, standardised tasks.
“Many tasks carried out by well-skilled people in well-paid, prestigious jobs are boring. If the corporate version of ChatGPT can write emails and send them before you even can, the next question is: ‘Why are you even there?’”
This is where people leaders step in. “It falls on HR to understand how these tools can augment and elevate talent. We need to ask ourselves how we can make our jobs more creative and less predictable so we stay relevant,” he says.
Getting it right
AI can feel simultaneously mysterious and vague, exciting and daunting. Chamorro-Premuzic says organisations’ journeys should start with small first steps.
“I’m no AI evangelist, but it’s the defining technology of the day that will impact every business, industry and function within it – so organisations can’t dismiss it. It’s a case of putting it on the agenda, creating structural platforms, opportunities and processes to be the crux of an organisation’s plan.
“You won’t have to be an expert and have all the answers. But do it right and AI can find better ways of improving you incrementally. And it may mean organisation have better leaders of the future.”
Learn more about the possibilities and risks of AI by accessing AHRI’s on-demand webinar, Generative AI For HR, via the member portal. Visit the webinars homepage for more information.