Autopilot and When to Bring in the Human

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I bought an electric car several months ago and have been learning the various automatic driving features. Among other miracles, my car can navigate me to my destination, change lanes for me, even accelerate and brake at the speed of traffic. With the press of a button, I can summon it to my front door from my garage or parallel park. Despite all these fancy features, I still need to drive the car. Depending on the settings I choose, I can be inattentive to my speed, not worry about the best route to to my destination, and let the car keep me in my lane. But it’s not foolproof. The car navigates by satellite, cameras, software and artificial intelligence (AI). Learning to drive this way has turned into a test of my worldview about when it’s most beneficial to be on autopilot and when to bring in the human.

Warning: Navigate on Autopilot does not make driving autonomous. You must pay attention to the road, keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times, and remain aware of your navigation route.

Tesla Owner’s Manual

Navigating with Values

Several years ago at the organization where I work, we spent considerable effort coming up with a set of shared values we could agree on and live by. These values drive the organization forward when we include them in our strategic planning, service visioning and hiring practices. As our organization grows and becomes more diverse, it’s even more important for me as a leader to check in on these values. Some questions I can ask: Am I living these values at work? Do these values resonate with new staff? In this time of organizational change-saturation is it best to let our values be on autopilot for the next stretch of road?

I’ve discovered that one of the benefits of the automatic features of my car is that it takes far less energy to drive. Much of the stress of traffic is reduced when the car is managing the details for me. Similarly, right now I’m thinking that if our values are holding true and the organization is aligned around them, personal and corporate energy can be used in areas where more attention is needed for the time being.

Human Intelligence: Shifting Belief Systems

My car learns how to drive through being fed a constant diet of big data. It’s what makes my car artificially intelligent. As humans, how we learn how to behave is much more complicated. Friend and mentor, John Treksalis of Chicago CEO Coaching, focuses some of his work on what he calls limiting belief systems. These limits can apply as much to beliefs about myself as to beliefs about others. He points out that when we’re triggered by a person, place or event it’s a belief system that’s making us react. He suggests that irrational beliefs start with words like “should,” “must,” and “need.” For me, recognizing when these words start popping into my head about a situation or person is an indicator that I might be dealing with a personally limiting belief system or narrow worldview.

An example of shifting belief systems for me came in the form of a new understanding about the kind of person I sometimes labeled as “just coming to work.” In Radical Candor, author Kim Scott defines the difference between what she calls rock stars and superstars. “Rock stars are solid as a rock. Think the Rock of Gibraltar, not Bruce Springsteen….Superstars, on the other hand, need to be challenged and given new opportunities to grow constantly.” This is a helpful distinction for me that shifts my mindset. I’m learning every day that some people are happy simply coming to work, doing their job, and going home on time. Depending on their stage in life and motivations, not everyone needs or wants to be a superstar. Rock stars are essential to the health and growth of an organization. Shifting my worldview to understand the intrinsic value of the rock star staff who are the bedrock of our organization is helping me chart different development paths and value them and their work differently than I have in the past.

Rock stars are solid as a rock. Think the Rock of Gibraltar, not Bruce Springsteen….Superstars, on the other hand, need to be challenged and given new opportunities to grow constantly.

Kim Scott, Radical candor

Asleep at the Wheel? Acknowledging the Human

A friend recently reminded me that people who are experienced at something often think it’s easy because they’re good at it. It can also be called the curse of knowing. Recently I’ve been thinking that because I’ve been managing people and building teams for so long that it’s easy – follow these steps and get to the destination. I’m wondering if I’m guilty of of being asleep at the wheel. Most times in my career I’ve come onto or built a team as a fixer. I’ve thrived in that role and helped organizations thrive as well. Now that I’m leading an organization that is on a steady course, I’m wondering if when it comes to the people side of things I’ve been letting the car drive itself a little bit. Recruitment market conditions have changed dramatically in the last few years. Behaving as if the familiar ways to develop and retain people in this environment will work now as they have for me before might mean I need to grab some coffee and reexamine how I’m thinking about the changing nature of being a human at work.

Acknowledging the human is a concept that is coming up for me at every turn. When that happens, I’m jolted to attention. Whether it’s the concept of honoring the human by using a gentle start-up when correcting behavior, caring personally about the people I work with, or believing that everyone is doing the best they can, I can change the story I’m telling myself about a person or situation. I appreciate the gentle nudges by the people in my life who care enough to call my attention to my tendency to have unrealistic expectations for myself and others – mere mortals that we are – and to assume motivations for behavior rather than asking the why. When I am fully awake, I know better to bring in the human, which can’t help but change my approach to the people about whom I care deeply.

Keeping my Hands on the Wheel

A recent software update in my car “enhanced” the autosteer function. Three times in one day, it grabbed the wheel out of my control and flashed a safety message. One of those times it almost auto-steered me right into a barrier and off a bridge. Good thing I had read about the update, generally understood when the car misinterprets data, and was alert. I’ve heard pilots say that despite all the technological advances that make flying easier, they still have to fly the plane.

Warning: Autosteer is a hands-on feature. You must keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times.

Tesla Owner’s Manual

That experience reminded me that the aim of AI is first to mimic human intelligence and eventually to improve upon it. Just like my car warns me if it detects a threat and entreats me to at least keep light pressure on the steering wheel, I still need to be alert to changing conditions. For me, learning how to drive with autopilot has also helped me gain new understanding that being an effective leader means navigating with values, being aware of limiting belief systems, honoring the human, and knowing when to keep my hands firmly on the wheel.

Recommended Reading:

Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss without Losing Your Humanity. Scott, Kim. 2017.

I think this book is a worthwhile read both for people new to supervision and those of us with a few more years under our belts. In some ways Kim Scott takes us through her own leadership journey as she coaches to different ways to approach supervision.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. Sapolsky, Robert M. 2017.

I’ve recommended this before. It’s a toughie but I promise it’s worth every minute.

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2 Comments

  1. PADMA POLEPEDDI on October 17, 2019 at 8:19 pm

    Wow! There’s so much to digest in this blog post Donna. There are several parts in here that I may have to go back to a few times as you have shared incredible leadership nuggets. I know I will be printing a copy of this so I can refer to it. Great book suggestions as always as I’ve not read these. Thank you for taking the time to share your learnings, insights and reflections.



  2. Rusty Walker on July 15, 2019 at 10:13 am

    This Blog is spot on. It’s a must read for those of us who lead and could use a nice tune up.