Perhaps leaders with their ‘realist’ hats on don’t necessarily strike the most helpful tone with their employees when it comes to discussing game-changing trends in the business world. This may well be the case with Deutsche Bank CEO John Cryan who, in a Frankfurt speech earlier this month, noted that automation spelt the end for numerous jobs at his company.

“In our bank we have people doing work like robots,” he said. “Tomorrow we will have robots behaving like people. It doesn’t matter if we as a bank will participate in these changes or not: it is going to happen.” As such, he stressed, a “big number” of Deutsche Bank staff – each of whom spends “a lot of time basically being an abacus” – stand to lose their jobs.

“The sad truth for the banking industry is, we won‘t need as many people as [we do] today,” Cryan lamented. The leader did point out that working practices could improve for those who are left behind, saying: “Wouldn’t it be great if machines could produce [accounting] numbers in just a few hours? Then accountants could analyse the numbers, form valid opinions [on] what those numbers mean and not just produce them.”

However, his primarily doomy message on what automation could mean for long-term career prospects is unlikely to go down well with the bank’s ground troops. How can leaders talk about automation in an honest way, yet ensure that they safeguard employees’ morale and confidence in their roles?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “John Lewis chairman Charlie Mayfield has talked eloquently about how automation has changed, for example, the way warehouses operate at his firm. But he is keen to stress that the jobs that have replaced those that have gone are much more interesting and skilled. From a leadership viewpoint, of course there is a need to be honest when you talk about automation, and not pretend that it isn’t going to happen. But at the same time, there’s optimism out there that it will create new types of jobs. There will be more skilled jobs, and more jobs that will require the insights of knowledge workers.”

Cooper adds: “When we turn to artificial intelligence, which forms a very significant part of the automation debate, in some cases it’s likely that more senior types of roles could be replaced – for example, consultants in hospitals. You can see that their knowledge, their ability to diagnose, could be increasingly replaced by automation. But you’re never going to be able to replace those health jobs that are about connecting with people, welcoming them on arrival, making them feel at ease – or empathising with them when they’re not feeling well, and contributing to their recovery.

“Each industry will have its own pluses and minuses amid the rise of automation. It is up to leaders in those industries to find out as much as possible about what shape those changes will take, and communicate them with a blend of honesty and empathy.”

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