Middle managers hold the key to unlock generative AI

Generative artificial intelligence (AI) is expected to significantly change how work is conducted—and that future is nearer than you might expect. McKinsey Global Institute data suggests that generative AI and other technologies, in their current state, have the potential to automate activities that comprise 60-70 percent of employees’ time today.

A recent OpenAI report suggests the impact will be widespread, as well: Four in five U.S. workers (80 percent) could have at least 10 percent of their tasks automated by generative AI, and one in five (19 percent) could see at least half of their responsibilities affected.

However, few occupations are expected to be eliminated entirely. Work will change, and become more efficient, but the need for human leadership will remain. In fact, we’d argue the need for excellent management will grow even greater, as the front line will look to managers to help them learn how to use AI, prioritize the use of their time that has been freed due to AI, and guide them in further development necessary to stretch into newly reshaped roles.

We recently conducted research into the current state of middle management to inform our book, “Power to the Middle: Why Managers Hold the Keys to the Future of Work.” Given the impact that generative AI and other innovative technologies will have on employee responsibilities, it is critical that middle managers be at the center of these conversations. Here’s why:

  1. Generative AI can shift the balance from busy work to value-creating people leadership. Middle managers today tend to fill a catch-all role within the organization. Our research found that less than 30 percent of managers’ time is spent on people leadership, with three quarters spent on individual execution or administrative tasks.

    Generative AI presents an opportunity to automate some of these tasks, freeing up time for middle managers to actually lead. In fact, 58 percent of tasks related to “applying expertise” could be automated. For instance, generative AI tools could provide first-draft responses in a manager’s area of expertise, which could then be refined by the manager before being shared with their intended audience.

    Additionally, 49 percent of managerial work could be automated, such as creating the first draft of a job posting or integrating performance feedback inputs from multiple sources to give the manager a head start during performance reviews.

  2. Emerging generative AI tools have the potential to help middle managers become better people leaders. Although these technologies are in various stages of development, the future is exciting.

    For example, generative AI could help create more personalized training and capability building for middle managers, from making recommendations based on individual needs and preferences to creating immersive role-playing scenarios. Generative AI has the potential to help managers get the personalized support they need to lead more effectively.

    In another use case, generative AI could help boost a manager’s capabilities as a career counselor. Instead of relying on their personal experience alone (i.e., “a career path like mine”), these technologies could provide a broader set of potential options for direct reports—and specific job experience and training needed to get there—through AI-powered talent platforms.

    Generative AI could also offer middle managers real-time team performance insights. In the future, a manager could be given reports on employee sentiment, the extent of collaboration across silos, and whether the team is converging or diverging at critical junctions through workplace tool analyses. Generative AI could also offer suggested courses of action to address any identified challenges.

  3. Middle managers will be critical to the success of generative AI deployment and adoption. The reasons for this ladder up directly to middle managers’ most important roles and responsibilities within the organization:

    • Applying human judgment, empathy, and creativity: While generative AI tools can create decent first drafts in many instances, humans are necessary to apply judgment (e.g., correcting flawed output), empathy (e.g., ensuring appropriate tone), and creativity (e.g., double checking that output aligns with the current context). As generative AI is put into use within an organization, a manager can directly apply these human characteristics when required and, importantly, coach their team members to develop their own uniquely human skillsets.

    • Managing risk: Informed by their principal function as people leaders, middle managers will play a crucial role in harnessing the potential benefits of AI while mitigating its risks. It is vital that managers understand the limitations and potential hazards of AI-based technologies, then engage in open discussions with leaders and teams about concerns, solutions, and guardrails—with the support of the organization’s responsible AI team.

    • Reimagining roles and how work gets done: As one of the best resources an organization has to determine what and how work should be completed, middle managers will play a significant role in reimagining team member tasks and responsibilities through the lens of AI. They will help to answer critical questions, including how to best use employee time freed up by automation, and how to ensure there is a “human in the loop” when needed.

Generative AI is already making waves across organizations. The research suggests that this will only accelerate, and at a very rapid pace. We’d argue that seizing this opportunity could be a win-win: Generative AI holds potential to not only help organizations increase productivity but also empower one of their most valuable, and often unsung, assets—middle managers.

The authors would like to thank Dakshata Mehta for her meaningful contributions to this post.

Learn more about our People & Organizational Performance Practice