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Chief Misery Officers and an AI Reality Check

A weekly post in which I share thoughts provoked by (some of) the great content I came across this week(ish).

It’s a long weekend here in Canada, with a holiday Monday (somehow so much better than a holiday Friday, in my opinion). I’ll continue my quest to make my garden look a tiny bit more like my neighbour’s perfect one, and will plan to watch fireworks… and then probably won’t.

By the way, I’ll be at WorkHuman later this month, and I’m speaking at DisruptHR Toronto on June 7, so if our paths are going to cross make sure to let me know (find me on Twitter @JSarahwatsHR)

And now, let the musing begin…

Happiness at Work

Where are the Chief Misery Officers? – Management Today, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

In this somewhat savage take on the state of happiness in our workplaces, Chamorro-Premuzic points out that the current HR rebranding effort underway at several high-profile companies will likely ring hollow for the majority of workers. The role of “Chief Happiness Officer” is (one assumes) intended to signal an aspirational striving for the organization it is attached to, and the incumbent who occupies it. Even if we suppose that the gap between “vision state” and reality on the ground in those organizations is not so vast that such a title evokes cynicism, in at least some other organizations that might emulate these ‘CHO’ pioneers, it certainly might.

Yet these labels are in stark contrast with the bleak reality experienced by most employees: abusive managers, narcissistic leaders, stressful and meaningless jobs, and no real prospect of advancing their careers. If, as global engagement and passive job-seeking figures suggest, fewer than 30% of employees are happy at work, is it not more appropriate for organisations to hire chief misery officers (CMOs)?

He has some satirical suggestions about the how CMOs can ensure workers are lives are made (or kept) sufficiently miserable, but I think you probably get his point. You likely need look no further than your own work history, or the struggles of your family and friends, to be reminded of organizations in which a “Chief Happiness Officer’ would be cleaning eggs off their car on a regular basis.

I don’t appreciate or share posts like this one because I think caring about worker happiness is silly or naive. I appreciate and share them because we need small, regular reminders that a lot of us live in an HR bubble. I think most of us know that “the world according to HR”  sounds really different than the world according to our non-HR colleagues. That continues to be a problem, and I don’t believe there is a simple fix, or that it’s necessarily an entirely HR-made issue. I do know that rebranding ourselves isn’t a serious solution, and may in fact exacerbate the situation.

  • Having a substantive debate about the role of HR in modern workplaces is healthy.
  • Articulating a superordinate goal to elevate the experience of your workforce or team members is laudable.
  • Wanting to signal a difference between ourselves and the worn-out caricature of administrative policy enforcers is completely understandable.

On the other hand, relabeling ourselves as CHO, or anything else, without doing the hard work (which must be shared by all leaders in an organization) to realign the dynamic between HR, leaders, and employees is not going to make it so.

Future of Work

AI: Still not clever enough to be allowed out on its own – Flip Chart Fairy Tales

Flip Chart Fairy Tales seems almost too cogent and meaty to still be labeled a blog, and its writer continues to churn out insightful posts on sometimes complex topics. This one provides a welcome reality check about AI and work.

If you’re not sure about the difference between artificial intelligence and machine learning, and the articles and commentary in your social feeds have led you to assume that robot recruiters are going to be taking over any time now, this post will provide some much-needed perspective.

“…data produced by humans may also reflect long-standing social prejudices so, while we may think a machine is impartial, if it is basing its decisions on what has happened previously it will replicate the bias of the past”
Machine learning, after all, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Take recruiting, which many imagine will be improved through the increasingly sophisticated use of machine learning, particularly in terms of reducing inherent bias. Machine learning requires data inputs to base its “learning” on: it will seem obvious that if we acknowledge that non-AI (human led) hiring is inherently biased, then providing data on previous hires to our machine learning algorithms will simply reproduce this bias. What might be less obvious is that even if we base our algorithm in part on data about successful employees, rather than selected hires, we’re only looking at a pool of people (our employees) who are a product of our past ‘human’ biased hiring.
As Nigel Shadbolt says, the potential dangers in AI are not the stuff of apocalyptic science fiction. What we should be worried about, he says, is far more mundane:
“[T}here is the danger that arises from a world full of dull, pedestrian dumb-smart programs.
We might also want to question the extent and nature of the great processing and algorithmic power that can be applied to human affairs, from financial trading to surveillance, to managing our critical infrastructure. What are those tasks that we should give over entirely to our machines?”
In the interview with Christian Madsbjerg I shared last week, he raised the question of how we should decide what work is turned over in their entirety to machines, even when they are better suited to the task in question than humans are (like analyzing large amounts of data). Madsbjerg points out the full automation of such a process reduces the chance of us ever learning anything new, once the opportunity for happy accidents or experimentation is removed. Here, Flip Chart Rick raises the inflexibility and speed of algorithms as a source of risk.
Anyone who has wept with frustration tying to find a contact phone number on a corporation’s website when its hard-coded processes can’t answer a slightly unusual query will see the potential danger. An assumption that clever systems are comprehensive and objective could result in frustration for users, unfair decisions or even serious harm. The threat isn’t from robots running amok but from an alignment of unforeseen circumstances and small mistakes, amplified by the power and reach of connected machines. The usual perfect storm but running at breakneck speed.

On a related note, if you’re looking for data-driven analysis of Brexit’s impact on work and workers, Flip Chart Fairy Tales is where you’ll find it

Other wonderful things worth checking out:

Ungoaling: Developing Habits Is The Way to Really Get Work Done – I love this post from my colleague Alyssa Burkus, and I feel like I need to read it regularly to remind myself that this is how I want to see the world. In it, she talks about her history of workaholism, setting unrealistic expectations, and being hard on herself when these were (predictably) unreachable. Her solution? Ungoaling: “For 2017 however, I only have one goal for the year: Set no goals….focus on habits, and the results will come”.

The Holiday Industrial Complex – it seems like we’re in the golden age of podcasts, since everyone I know keeps giving me recommendations for stuff I don’t have time to listen to. My husband and I listen on car rides, and we caught this short (<18 minutes) Planet Money segment from NPR yesterday. It’s a near-perfect example of how this medium can be informative and entertaining.
Converations with Susan- Deliberately Developmental Organsiations – Okay, one more (this is why I have laundry that has been sitting in the washer for two days). This is a great (25 minute) discussion between Susan Basterfield of Enspiral (and the recent LeadWise Academy Practical Self-Management Intensive course I took), and Helen Sanderson, a pioneer in the care home community in the UK (as well as leading a self-managed org herself). Well worth a listen for insight into what a Deliberately Developmental Organization is all about.

Slash Workers Check out this animated graphic overview of recent analysis of “slash workers” (freelancers with one or more services/gigs/vocations). Interesting data on who these workers are, why they became freelancers/independents, and what industries and sectors they operate in.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got. Any chance I’ll see you at WorkHuman or DisruptHRTO? Are you looking forward to our biased robot overlords? Wish I’d stop writing about happiness at work? Disagree that an HR bubble exists? Please share your own musings in the comments!

Image credit: Aaron Burden via




2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great as always

    May 25, 2017

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  1. Weekly Musings – May 28, 2017 | Talent Vanguard

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