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The electronic boss (2)

A person’s facial expression sends very strong signals. Can we leverage this knowledge with the help of software to fill the notorious motivational deficits among employees? Can an animated version of the boss trigger the same feelings as the real one? Here are more of our thoughts on the electronic boss.

Let’s recap. Last time, I had talked about various encounters of mine with avatars. A video installation from Nassan Tur had impacted me the most. The central elements were four faces that were larger than life. The effect that it had on me isn’t so astounding. Seeing and reading faces is fascinating for us all. In less civilized scenarios, it is even a matter of survival: Our stone-aged ancestors were well advised to scrutinize all people who approached them in the savannah and to deduce their intentions based on posture and facial expressions.

Dr. Bissantz langweilt sich
A single look suffices to know: This man is not paying the least bit of attention to the person observing him. (Photographer: Christian Höhn).

Evolution has ensured that the human brain is especially skilled at capturing and correctly interpreting non-verbal signals (in general) and facial expressions (in particular) of a person standing across from us. This holds true in good and bad scenarios. What’s truly fascinating is the impulse that a simple, genuine smile can have on a person’s demeanor. Everyone knows what a smile of a valued person means, and one from a stranger doesn’t leave us cold either. If we make someone laugh, on the other hand, we are proud and feel like laughing, too. Making someone laugh is almost a virtue of its own.

Dr. Bissantz lächelnd
The smile proves: Now we have the man’s full attention – and empathy, too. (Photo: Christian Höhn).

I envision a large screen showing the face of the boss – in other words, mine or that of another senior manager. The screen stands a few meters away, but every time people look up from their work, they see it. From afar, that almost reminds you of a common practice in totalitarian regimes where pictures of the dictator are hung everywhere. The following thoughts, however, do not require despotic sentiments. To the contrary, they demand a great deal of humor and self irony from the management team. The picture isn’t static. It changes with each success made on the job. Success, in this case, needs to be quantitative. In our company, like in many others, there are many possibilities to do that: from completing x-number of tasks on a to-do list, distributing publications on schedule, and solving customer problems to implementing changes in the software, recording successes in the customer acquisition process, or even completing phone calls, e-mails, project steps, and so on.

Dr. Bissantz begeistert
It looks like we’ve scored a goal: The enthusiasm is great. (Photo: Christian Höhn).

To calm any potential fears of the workers’ council, each employee can personally agree to the goals with the boss avatar. The respective parameter settings sound a bit unusual: “Give me a grin when I have closed a support case”, or “Give me a big smile when I have closed ten of them”.

A simulated boss who acknowledges progress…how could that ever work? Simple. Human feelings don’t really differentiate between perception and real experience. The old saying “Anticipation is half the fun” proves that. The intense perception of an experience can even exceed the real experience itself. Sometimes the excitement over an upcoming vacation is greater than the excitement of the experience itself – and the longer it has been in the past, the nicer it has become in memory. That is good, too, because anticipation makes strenuous things easier. And because life involves a lot of work and effort, our brains do a fabulous job of producing happiness. The actual proportions, facts, and evidence don’t play a major role in this mechanism.

In our own company, we are going to test how well computer-simulated acknowledgements fare in the real work world. We have already scheduled an appointment to film boss emotions. The hardware has been ordered, and the developers are busy at work. You’ll hear more about our progress soon in this blog.