Why Personal Communication Means More Now
Generative AI can make communication more efficient but less trustworthy. Wise leaders will know to use it cautiously.
I am not an AI catastrophist. I don’t believe that AI will, as a substantial number of leaders apparently believe, destroy humanity in a few years. Every new technology, from the codex to the car to the personal computer, has arrived alongside proclamations that they spell our downfall. More often, we simply adapt. New technologies reshape how industries go about their business and what skills will be essential to them, but the industries survive (barring the stray buggy-whip concern or vaudeville circuit).
While that gets sorted out, though, leaders and managers will likely be prone to doing some dumb things when it comes to communicating.
One example of this comes from a SHRM report last month noting that LinkedIn has enabled AI tools that recruiters can use to reach out to candidates. LinkedIn’s VP of Product Hari Srinivasan enthused about its simplicity to SHRM: The company’s in-house generative AI model has been trained on the site’s messages, and then uses “information from the candidate’s profile, job description, and the recruiter’s company to draft a highly personalized message to get the conversation started.”
Personalized, maybe, but not personal. As one HR pro told SHRM: “Think about how you would want to be approached. No one wants to be spammed, and no one wants to feel like they were part of some lazy recruiter’s bulk messaging.”
The same thing goes for the kinds of everyday communications leaders send to their teams. Bulk e-mailed atta-teams aren’t going to carry the same resonance if they seem forced, faked, and the product of a bot crammed with “relevant” information like a stuffed goose. Skepticism about just about every message abides now. In response, tech executive Cole Clark has a simple suggestion: Write a note.
“Sidestepping technology altogether has newfound power,” Cole writes in a recent piece for Sloan MIT Management Review. “There have always been people who prefer to write business notes by hand, but it’s never before carried such a significant connotation.”
Cole points to some research noting the business benefits of a personal note and how it can prompt more spending among customers. But it’s also more meaningful in a hybrid work environment: When key people receive personal messages, wherever they work, they can feel more like they’re on the same playing field.
I know, I know: Personal notes are hard to scale. They’re time-consuming. Your hand cramps, and your handwriting is terrible. Some messages do demand an all-staff email, and that AI can eradicate some of the grunt work involved in boilerplate communications. But AI shouldn’t drift into the communications that aren’t boilerplate—the thank-yous, the note of appreciation, the saw-this-article-and-thought-of-you message.
And the personal message doesn’t always doesn’t have to be in handwriting, Cole notes. It can come in the form of a video message or voicemail—or a phone call—that communicates directly and personally. “The key is to always be on the lookout for ways to emphasize our humanity in our communication,” Cole writes. It’s a peculiar thing to feel that humanity needs to be called out for special attention, but that’s what new technologies do—they create doubt about what’s lasting and true and what isn’t. Part of a leader’s job is to erase the doubt.