Digital transformations occur across nearly every industry as organizations introduce technology to automate routine tasks, increase predictability, improve decision-making and drive productivity. A recent survey by Dale Carnegie Training found that 67% of employees are already impacted by AI in their roles or expect to be within the next five years.

Whether automating a search function on the company website, deploying chatbots to provide customer service or turning pricing models over to artificial intelligence (AI), companies look to boost productivity and generate new insights. But implementing AI can be tricky for reasons beyond technology and data; for example, it can have a significant impact on work roles and can create feelings of fear and anxiety. The result? Resistance, resentment and, ultimately, a negative impact on engagement levels. Organizations risk offsetting gains from technology with losses in contributions from employees. The answer? Foster a resilient workforce ready to embrace change with confidence and a positive attitude.

People with a positive outlook expect and receive positive outcomes more often than others. Scientists theorize that positivity gives people a broader range of potential thoughts and behaviors than negativity, which limits them. It also helps people build physical, intellectual, social and psychological resources, making them more resilient. Self-confidence and a positive outlook also support a mindset that is open to new information. However, despite the need to learn from and act quickly on insights from data, this type of mindset isn’t widespread. Only 31% of respondents in the Dale Carnegie survey strongly agreed that people in their organization approach new information with a generally positive attitude.

How can organizations promote positivity, specifically toward AI and digital transformations? Three requirements stand out: trust in leadership, transparency and proactively preparing employees to transition to new roles.

Trust in Leadership

In a 2017 survey by PwC, 67% of chief executive officers said that AI and automation will affect trust levels in the future. With digital transformation, there’s little wonder that employees fear negative personal impact. Fear is a productivity-killer, but good communication from trusted leaders can help minimize apprehension.

Unfortunately, executives may be oblivious to trust issues. A person’s trust in senior leadership to make the right decisions when implementing AI appears to have an inverse relationship with that person’s position in the organizational hierarchy. Individuals at the director level and above tend to trust leadership, but that’s not necessarily true for lower levels.

If trust is an issue in an organization, it’s likely that implementing AI (or any other strategic initiative perceived as threatening) carries additional risk of failure. Companies that overlook that reality can pay a high price. One example is a U.S. air carrier that used unsupervised machine learning to extract business rules for pricing models and combined them with insights from human analysts to generate a model to optimize pricing. Its management team explained the changes as new approaches for training analysts without explaining the role of AI. The secrecy backfired. By not involving employees up front, managers had to deal with disaffected employees unready to perform new tasks.

“It was a huge mistake,” said the carrier’s managing director. “I think the biggest lesson we learned is the quicker that you engage the people who are going to be affected by this the most, ultimately the better off you’re going to be.”

Organizations are well advised to assess their existing levels of trust, which they can do through engagement assessments, apps for sentiment analysis, pulse surveys and exit interviews. If the assessment identifies an issue with trust, organizations should consider asking the following questions before undertaking major initiatives:

    • Are leaders’ words consistent with their actions?
    • How openly does our organization share information?
    • How well do the actions of leaders align with our organization’s principles?

Commitment to Transparency

Going hand in hand with trust is a commitment to technology transparency, which means providing employees with a clear understanding of the new technology’s purpose, what it will achieve and the scope of the work to be automated.

Transparency can be challenging given the complexity of AI and other advanced technologies. It can be particularly difficult when introducing AI in human resources (i.e., hiring, evaluating performance, promotions, etc.), where outcomes are even more personal for employees. Here, leaders should communicate the intention behind the projects, demystify them and engage the expertise of the employees doing the tasks now to help avoid missteps. Leaders should ask themselves:

    • Are we clearly communicating what we’re trying to do with technology, and why we are doing it, to everyone who may be impacted?
    • Are we prepared to explain how the technology will work?
    • Have we established the appropriate governance to avoid bias and prevent potential legal, security and privacy issues?

Preparation for Transition

Proactively helping employees prepare to transition to roles that work alongside AI is essential to keeping them positive and focused on opportunities instead of the potential negatives. Most workers recognize that receiving additional training is important to avoid losing their jobs.

In a 2018 PwC survey of CEOs, 76% of CEOs said they were concerned about their organization’s lack of digital skills, but 91% said that they needed to strengthen their organization’s soft skills. That finding should not be surprising; humans excel in creativity, social skills and judgment. It’s humans who ask the right questions, interpret and evaluate decisions, and manage technology. Work that requires the highest levels of social and creative intelligence, such as collaborative innovation, are far from being automated. Soft skills will continue to be essential. Helping employees feel confident that they can develop the skills needed to continue to succeed in the era of AI is critical to achieving a positive attitude toward AI initiatives.

For organizations that see digital transformation and AI as vital to success, the value of having positive employees, who are willing to embrace the technology as well as their own changing roles at work, can’t be overstated. Organizations should analyze the following questions to lay the groundwork:

    • Are we assessing roles for future changes due to automation?
    • What current and new skills do future changes require?
    • Are we making plans in parallel with technology implementation to develop those skills in our employees?

Support for Positive Attitudes

Attitude is a powerful predictor of success and failure, including when it comes to digital transformation initiatives. For leaders, encouraging a positive attitude toward projects related to digital transformation is an important first step.

Companies that inform, educate and involve employees from the beginning have the advantage of tapping into their deep knowledge of the tasks to be automated and planning for retraining. With a strong trust in leadership, a commitment to transparency and dedication to building confidence in employees’ ability to transition, companies will go a long way toward turning their employees into technology advocates.