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What Should a Leader Do When Big Data is Watching?

by Alok Sawhney on

I was having dinner with a friend the other night who works for a large multi-national conglomerate.  Over the last ten years, she has given the company her best efforts as a human resources professional.  She told me she wanted a promotion to lead at the Director level, although those positions were few and far between in her company.  When talking about her candidacy for the role, she explained to me how big data could be used in her organization to inform the hiring decision. Specifically, she talked about how analytics from HR systems could affect her bid for an advanced role.  She said, “These new HRIS systems can track all sorts of things – how long a manager spends in meetings, how many emails they have unread in their inbox.  These crazy computers can make up all kinds of profiles about you.”  Her story sounded ominous, so I decided to investigate further.

What Big Data Does for Decisions

It’s true that big data can provide helpful information. In fact, one of our blog posts earlier this year discussed the benefits of using AI to track organization-wide trends, like turnover rates. It can also tell us how much time we spend on tasks, who we spend the most time with, and what steps we need to take to get a certain outcome.  Big data can  help us understand managerial skill better: we have all sorts of tools to measure critical thinking, personality, and leadership preferences within the workplace.

When aggregated, big data and artificial intelligence may lead to virtual simulations in which a professional can role-play how he or she would handle a management situation, and the computer will respond like a human being.  As electronic management simulations are becoming increasingly available, managers may get to practice their leadership skills like they were playing a video game.

The idea of collecting data points to understand someone’s managerial abilities is by no means new.  A few decades ago, industrial-organizational psychologists came up with ways to categorize their people along a vertical axis of performance – what an employee has done in the past to get results – and a horizontal axis of potential – how likely the employee will be able to succeed in the future. If you’ve ever participated in a talent review, you’ll realize I’m describing the nine-box grid.

Big data and artificial intelligence could help categorize professionals more quickly and make decisions on what opportunities would be best for them in the organization. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out the risks inherent in relying too heavily on technology to provide insights. And I think we all realize that the number of unread emails in an inbox is, by itself, not nearly enough data to indict anyone.

What Big Data Means for An Emerging Leader

What’s interesting is that although we’ve gotten more sophisticated at collecting data on managerial abilities (hence the advanced technology tools), the fundamentals of being a good manager remain the same.

When I coach a manager, I typically think about four basic areas based on the work of Mark Horstmann and Mike Auzenne. Mark is the author of The Effective Manager, and Mark and Mike host a weekly podcast called Manager Tools. Their main points are:

  1. Get to know your people well.
  2. Give feedback.
  3. Provide coaching.
  4. Delegate.

It seems to be a straightforward formula for success.

So, what do you do?  If you are like my friend (who knows she is being watched), do you run and hide your managerial skills?  Do you try to game the intricate HR systems?  Maybe try to figure out the algorithm and have it work in your favor?  No!

Create more positive data points! Although technology has gotten much better, the fundamentals of management have not changed.  To be noticed, you have to get great results, be a strong team player, and be willing to make change happen in the organization.  It’s not easy, but it’s the perfect playbook to get promoted from manager upwards in a complex organization.

My clients typically ask, “Well, how do you that?”  My answer is to build strong relationships.  That may sound cliché, but it is true.  The stronger interpersonal relationships you have in the organization, the more effective you’ll be as a manager. Building trust in your direct reports’ abilities – and, in turn, building their confidence in you – is the cornerstone of effective management.  This means taking the time to get to know your people, understanding what they need from you, and setting clear expectations of what they need to accomplish.  If you get strong results, are a strong team player, and can drive change; you will be on the upward path towards for promotion.

As for the sophisticated algorithms, stick to the fundamentals of managing others well and the formulas will take care of themselves.  Remember, we don’t want to work for managers who have good ratings – we want to create a collaborative partnership with a great boss!

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