GenAI as an Empowering Technology: Give Yourself a Promotion & Gain an Employee

Categories: AI and MLPerspectiveTechnology

I think we’d all agree that getting promoted is desirable. Higher wages, better job title, greater impact, and perhaps more prestige. But it’s not without its problems.

Like many engineers, I started out writing code. I was good at it, and customer demand increased for my services. I then started hiring other engineers and promoted myself to what today we’d call an “architect” role (this is back in the days when software engineering roles were not so well-defined). I still coded, but only the critical algorithmic parts of the software.

I hired smart people, but at first, the engineers I hired were not as good at coding as I was. 

Then, over time, they got better. In fact, some of them became better coders than I had been. I realized that my promotion—while a positive thing—also involved at least two losses for me: First, watching someone do something worse than I had done it. And second, seeing them do it better.

I’ve been through the same process for pretty much every job I’ve ever held. Getting promoted is a good thing, but it also poses challenges for the one being promoted. You need to learn to be effective in a new role, and simultaneously, you need to let go of the skills that got you promoted in the first place. 

This is demanding, both work-wise and emotionally. In particular, working for your replacement’s success requires humility. Letting go of the ‘identity’ you built by being good at the previous level can be scary, especially when you’re trying to establish a new track record of success at a higher level.

While it can be hard to let go of your previous role and identity, I’ve learned, over time, that as a boss, I should only intervene when it’s important. It’s demoralizing for an employee to get overridden by their boss, so this should be a very rare occurrence and only happen when it’s truly needed. 

Recommended reading: GenAI and the Midas Touch

Telling your employees how to do their job when they already know or can figure it out themselves denies them a chance to learn. It’s a sign of an immature boss when he or she is not willing to delegate the tasks that made him or her successful in their former role. A boss's proper function is to monitor their team’s performance and intervene when something is seriously wrong. But when you as a boss are afraid to delegate, you fail to nurture your employee’s growth or, indeed, to grow yourself into your new higher role after you’ve been promoted.

I’ve learned that when an employee in my team simply does something differently than I would have done it, though equally well or only slightly worse, it’s best not to interfere. 

This gives the employee room to improve—and if they ask for my help, so much the better. And where an employee eventually begins to do my old job better than I would have, I’ve learned not to be jealous (at least I try), but rather to cheer her or him on and to regard their success as a victory for both of us. After all, he or she had the benefit of having a great boss (me), so it’s my victory, too!

I’m finding that this same management approach applies not just to humans but also to AIs. I’ve noticed the same “promotion” emotions in myself with my “AI-driven” Tesla, for example. I was comfortable with some of the Tesla's self-driving features right from the outset – for example, its adaptive cruise control. It didn’t brake and accelerate exactly like I would, but it did them as well as a different human driver would have. So, just as if I were being driven by someone else, I rapidly learned to be comfortable with it. 

Other features took me a while to rely on – lane changes, for example. For a year or so, I remained hyper-vigilant whenever I prompted the car to change lanes ‘just in case’ it didn’t notice other drivers already present or that another driver might be trying to overtake me in the passing lane. 

Over time, I came to accept emotionally that the car, with its array of sensors and cameras, was more aware of the other drivers and their acceleration than I was. If the car intelligently used that information (which I came to trust that it did), then I was safer letting the car do the lane changes than I was doing them manually. While I remain alert out of simple caution, I no longer stress about the car making lane changes. I enabled the automatic lane change feature and generally let the car make lane change decisions by itself.

There are still a couple of cases where I override the self-driving features of the Tesla. One is a freeway exit on my way to work. After exiting, I have to cross four lanes of traffic in about 500 feet/150 m to make a left turn into our campus. While the Tesla can do this automatically and safely, it starts and stops so suddenly and repeatedly that I’m uncomfortable with how it faces this challenge. So I switch to manual. 

Another is a freeway intersection where the left two lanes are always congested because of exiting traffic. I know this is the case, but the Tesla apparently does not because it keeps trying to put me in one of the congested lanes rather than the leftmost lane, which I know will usually be less crowded. I, therefore, override the automatic lane change feature in this case.

Recommended reading: Using AI to Maximize Business Potential: A Guide to Artificial Intelligence for Non-Technical Professionals

My point is that using the Tesla and its AI-based driving capabilities feels a lot like I gave myself a “promotion” out of my hands-on driving duties, and instead hired the Tesla as my driver. Like a human employee, the Tesla does some things better than I did, some things worse, and other things just differently. And as with a human employee, I need to monitor and intervene when Tesla’s departure from the way I want things done is important to me. But where the car is better or just different, I let the car decide.

I suspect this will be the case for all of us with GenAI; we are all giving ourselves a “promotion” when we adopt this new technology. 

Each of us is still discovering the ways GenAI can make us more effective in our jobs—and even, in some cases, where it can automate areas we used to do ourselves, allowing us to take on additional roles – and sometimes requiring us to shed what we are currently good at. This can be uncomfortable and even feel threatening. Our identities and sense of security as employees are based, in part, on what we see ourselves as being good at, so this is tough.

Your boss might not admit this to you, but when he or she first found themselves in a new position with more power and responsibility, I’ll bet they, too, were uncertain of how best to handle it. If you don’t already feel that way with GenAI, I predict that you will soon. 

GenAI is an empowering technology for “thought workers” and creative people. It’s not something many of us expected to see happen right now, but even in its relative infancy, it gives us all significant leverage to get more done better and faster. 

When you begin to grab hold of GenAI and make it work for you, my advice is to relax and explore the possibilities of the new role now open to you. Be a good boss and treat GenAI like your employee. You’ve just gotten a promotion!

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Dr. Jim Walsh


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