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Is AI the New EI?

Bill Gates once commented that AI (Artificial Intelligence) is both “promising and dangerous”[1], and he is right. This premise is implicated as more and more organizations leverage AI capabilities. For human-capital management (HCM) leaders, who for decades have stressed the importance of EI (Emotional Intelligence), the question then becomes, is AI the new EI and should it be? 

Emotional Intelligence - What do employees REALLY want when it comes to communication?

Not surprisingly, most employees want to be heard. In the context of performance management, for example, employees want their managers to provide timely and objective job-performance assessments and a clearly articulated set of goals and related performance expectations.[2]  This necessarily requires ongoing, transparent, and sometimes courageous conversations between a sufficiently skilled manager having strong emotional intelligence (EI) and the employee.  Moreover, this human-conversational platform also enables the employee to share any factors that are outside of the employee’s ability to control, and which are negatively impacting job performance. 

Can a bot effectively replace managerial feedback?

To this point, ask anyone who has communicated with a bot about a customer-service concern, and you will likely find many unhappy consumers.  In fact, according to one study, 70% of U.S. consumers would prefer human interaction when customer-service issues arise.[1] When we shift from a defective coffee maker complaint to how our work performance is being assessed, the stakes increase exponentially.

There are some advantages when AI is used in the performance-management process.  For example, depending upon the underlying algorithms, AI can offer employees real-time, data-driven performance feedback regarding productivity, accuracy, etc.  This AI feedback also helps to mitigate subjective managerial rating bias.

Where AI can fall short is in its inability to provide customized coaching from which employees can benefit.   Similarly, AI cannot “converse” with an employee about factors over which the employee has no control and which are negatively impacting work performance.

Herein lies the strategic opportunity for HCM leaders to determine how skilled managers with strong EI can better leverage AI’s power to drive more insightful and supportive coaching conversations with individual team members.

When undertaking this analysis, HCM leaders will want to consider carefully whether and how any new AI strategies will support the employer’s strategic, fiscal, legal, and ethical considerations, mandates, and values.  Whatever AI-EI strategy is implemented, HCM leaders must examine the approach with a careful eye toward any practice that potentially assaults the legal and/or ethical prongs of this four-part analysis.  Inevitably, when this occurs, organizational strategic and fiscal goals will be negatively impacted by substantial legal costs, diminished brand reputation, and increased voluntary attrition to name a few.

Distinguish the person from the problem

Even when an employment separation-for-cause is the appropriate determination, it is incumbent upon organizational leaders to treat the person separately from the performance issues. HCM leaders are uniquely positioned to formulate and implement a separation process that preserves each departing employee’s dignity and, in turn, serves the organizational values of respect, fairness and compassion.  

Hello, is anyone there?

While there are efficiencies for both organizations and individual employees in terms of self service for certain HR-related matters, relying predominantly on AI-driven systems to get employees answers to sensitive and challenging benefits questions creates some potential legal and ethical pitfalls.  For example, an employee using a chatbot about a benefits-coverage question may include confidential patient health-information details.  Thus, the organization must assure there is a robust firewall to protect such information to avoid running afoul of privacy laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Whatever AI system is in place, it behooves organizations to understand when and how an employee will be directed to a different resource for complex questions that cannot be adequately addressed via bot. Additionally, even if an employee’s question can be answered by a bot, there may be occasions when offering the employee a choice between AI and direct human communications may be in order. Sometimes AI-driven efficiency is not a sufficient replacement for an empathetic and compassionate conversation with another person. 

HCM leaders, your mission, should you choose to accept it.

As AI works its way into everyone’s daily work lives, HCM leaders have an important mission to consider accepting. Here are some key questions to jumpstart this consideration:

  • How will HCM leaders make the business case to protect the capacity for managers and employees to speak frankly with each other to further advance the goal of meeting business objectives and treating everyone fairly? 
  • How will HCM leaders drive a strategy that supports the efficient and effective co-existence of AI and EI in their organizations?
  • What elements should be included in a legally and an ethically sound AI communication plan? 

Drawing on the legendary television and film series Mission Impossible tag line, HCM leaders, this is your mission, should you choose to accept it. And this message will self-destruct in five seconds (so “says” the bot).

[1] CNBC.  Retrieved June 28, 2021, from CNBC website:

[2] Inc.  Retrieved June 28, 2021, from website:


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity.