Whether you like it or not, robots already are sharing workspaces with people in all kinds of businesses. Sometimes that just lets people focus on other types of work, which can be great for letting your creativity run free. But what happens when you're working side-by- side with a machine doing similar tasks?

Researchers at Cornell University sought to figure out how competing against a robot affected human worker behavior and feelings. Both the robot and the people in the study had to do a mundane job--counting how many times the letter "G" appeared in a string of characters and putting a block in a bin that corresponded to the number of occurrences. The odds of winning a prize were dependent on performance (50 percent, if the robot and human's scores were the same), and the human workers could see those odds on a screen every round. At the end of every round, the participants had to rate competence for themselves and the robot. They also rated how likable the robot was.

The results were clear: The better the robot did, the more the participants hated them. They also rated the machines as having higher competence, rating their own competence lower. And in terms of productivity, as participants saw the robots doing great, they apparently caved to feelings of being less than, working with slightly less effort.

The Cornell research is important because it shows that people can't just shut off their drive to win and be top dog. They still try to compare apples to apples, treating themselves and the robots as though they're in a traditional competition between just people. They still attach perceptions of ability and worth and intellect to the way they perform. If you put people in a position where they know can't match whatever the robots are doing, they likely won't work as hard for you because they bend to a self-fulfilling prophesy and feel like there's no hope of real success or standing out. That decrease in productivity could cost big bucks over time, putting your ability to compete--which is probably the reason you'd buy the robots to begin with--at risk.

But remember, during the study, the participants could see what their odds were and what was at stake every round. Their failure or success essentially was impossible to miss. But if you make the performance gap less obvious, such as simply having the robot in a different area, you might be able to reduce the negative response workers experience. Alternately, you could be purposely transparent about the fact that robots have one performance expectation while people have another, keeping incentives completely unrelated to what the machines do. Truthful, well-deserved praise and other words of affirmation also can encourage workers and combat their inner self-critic.

The bottom line is, you don't have to dismiss the notion of machines and people cohabitating in the office. But be aware of how much workers notice their mechanical co-workers and how they perceive them. Make a conscious choice about the mental well-being of your team members and take their natural inclination to compare and compete into account in design, policy, everyday interaction, and reward.

Published on: Mar 13, 2019
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