Human Resource Leaders Need To Reset The Narrative Around AI

HR gets a bad rap. In a lot of organizations, they’re the one responsible for all the not-fun stuff: hirings and firings, discipline, setting the rules and enforcing them. They’re also usually not the most transparent - because they often can’t be, but that’s by the by in most employees’ opinions. As a result, among employees there’s a pervasive sense that Human Resources is distinctly lacking the human touch.

Of course if you work in HR, you know that that’s an unfair assessment. HR professionals often choose to go into their field because they care about people. They care that people are treated and compensated fairly by their employers, and that companies are held to those standards.

The thing is, because they’re responsible for *everyone’s* interests, they have to continuously balance the need to be equitable to everyone across all teams, and protect the interests of the employees as well as the interests of their employer. It’s an impossible balancing act and one that is often hard to explain. So in reality, any distance you sense from HR people is because they are walking this fine line, having been entrusted with the paradoxically lonely task of representing everyone.

The problem is that, with the emergence of AI, that impression of HR teams is not improving. Like many other functions, HR teams are welcoming the surge of HR-related AI tools to hit the market, which help them handle their workload and the volume and nuance of requests they receive on a daily basis. But in the eyes of employees, now they’re not only the rule makers and enforcers, but also the automators. There’s a perception that with the rise of AI tools to handle employee queries, to set policies and to reduce headcount, that employees could feel even less heard than they did before. Behind closed doors they're asking: Is less humanity really what HR teams need?

Fortunately, there’s an antidote. HR teams can leverage the advantages offered by AI to catalyze their efficiency just like any other function, but in order to avoid scrutiny or criticism, it’s imperative that they incorporate storytelling into their projects and initiatives.

Camilla Boyer, founder of storytelling and strategic communications consultancy Corazon, told me more about this. “It’s the difference between the HR initiatives that succeed, and the ones that fail,” she said. “The initiatives that are quickly and widely adopted are the ones where the team running the project has spent the time to think about why that tool or policy matters. What problem does it solve for the employee population? How does it make the company a better place to work? How does it support the broader company mission?” Those are the questions HR teams need to be asking themselves, and answering for employee populations as part of any change rollout.

For the uninitiated, “storytelling” might seem like a strange thing to bring into business. But we’re not talking about Pixar movies or fairytales - we’re talking about the fundamental communication principles that make stories so captivating, and how we can leverage them in a business context to make information stick. In its rawest form, storytelling is about identifying a problem, and working through a solution together, with all the twists and turns that the journey may bring.

“In a business context, storytelling helps us get back to first principles,” says Boyer. “When companies come to Corazon for help launching a product, announcing a change, or wanting to raise funds, we always start with why that thing - company, product, or service - matters. We discuss the problem it solves and the impact it can have, and we build up a compelling narrative that will resonate with the target audience from there.”

For HR professionals, leveraging storytelling techniques to identify those first principles is how we can find common ground between all the stakeholders whose interests we are trying to serve. Spending the time to think through how we explain a change to an employee population naturally makes us zoom out, away from the logistics, tools, and execution plans, and instead focus on why this work matters. That effort pays dividends; ultimately it’s the why that will resonate with your employees much more than introducing another tool or policy without proper explanation.

It should be standard best practice for People teams to work hand in hand with the internal communications function, or, as startups looking to avoid costly agencies or FTE hires are increasingly doing,  hire an expert communications consultant  for the duration of the project when rolling out a big change. The partnership with internal comms can help us to find the story at the heart of your initiative, and figure out how to frame it in a way that will connect the change to the shared pain points of your employee population or, even better, to the mission of the company itself.

It is also imperative for internal comms to stay in sync with external communications and public relations to ensure a unified message internally and externally. In my experience at Airbnb and Paper, I have seen internal communication teams sit within the people team and be very effective in amplifying the employee experience. Even if the people team is not leading an organization-wide transformation, communication is a critical component of change management that can directly impact the morale and engagement of employees, and, in turn, the culture of the organization.

It’s hard enough juggling all the moving pieces in a People function – leveraging storytelling techniques can not only re-humanize you in the eyes of the people you serve, but can also make sure all that effort actually yields the impact you’re aiming to deliver.

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