In my late 20s, I had a little existential crisis when I woke up to the fact that I had committed myself to what felt like 40 years of punitive service on a commercial hamster wheel. No-one had warned me. I felt I had been a sleep walker in my own life. The job I had lacked soul, purpose and meaning. I felt that I didn’t matter individually – that I was a cog that could be easily replaced by another. It was my first experience of the lack of humanity in a business.
I grew up thinking that “being right” was what mattered. I also learned that taking action was valued by others. None of this is surprising given that these principles form the foundation of how we raise and educate our children. When we start work, we join workplaces where, once again, the action-focused super hero is prized behavior. Amid this frenzied action, at some point we are trained to leave our humanity at the door of the office.
And it’s exhausting. Even super heroes need to be able to take off their capes and regenerate their superpowers.
We have come to a point in human history where we have industrialized the heart out of business. We build organizations that focus on maximizing capital (that includes us humans), reducing risk (that includes irrational human behavior), and returning shareholder value. We optimize processes and improve technologies. Even the language points to a lack of humanity.
Why does human business matter? To ignore the human aspect of business has an impact on the bottom line. From an internal perspective, one must add up the lost days to sickness, staff attrition and the more insidious drag on business of a disengaged workforce. We all have probably seen the impact of a less-than-humane work environment – stress related illnesses, heart-attacks, and family breakdown. From an external perspective, humanly dysfunctional businesses are less desirable to deal with, whether as partners or customers. The most successful companies in the long run are those who are humanely engaged with their associates and who treat their customers and partners with consideration and respect. Businesses must prioritize customer experience, but they also need to have the kind of employee morale needed to truly deliver it.
Let me share with you a recent experience that brought home to me why the practice of being human in business matters to me.
I had the misfortune of being robbed a few weeks back. As many of you will know, being robbed is a horrible experience leaving you with a range of feelings from being violated, angry, and vulnerable. Any robbery requires interactions with the police and the insurance companies – both constrained by budget cuts, clunky process, technology and outcomes based behavior such as targets or quotas.
The contrast in between the police and the insurer/loss adjuster interactions was stark. These connections points of an insurance company with the outside world are, as the phrase goes, “moments of truth.”
I was a human being in shock. The police spoke to me with compassion while still getting the data they needed. They offered me reassurances for my safety and let me know the full extent of support police offer to victims of crime. Over four separate interactions, I never felt foolish for asking the same question several times (shock impacts short-term memory). The impact on me was that I felt like I mattered.
I could characterize the interactions with the police like a warm, sugary cup of tea from your grandma. In contrast, the experience with the insurer/loss adjuster was much like I imagine a first week in a juvenile detention center might be – cold, unwelcoming, and at times humiliating.
Every touch point was soulless. The call center agent read in a monotone from a script sounding bored out her skull. The loss adjuster was two hours late, ignored the forensics report suggesting I was at fault for a poorly maintained window. When I followed up by calling the LA office as requested, I was curtly told to send an email so that they “could track all communications.” I had to re-send the email three times before it was successfully received. Some weeks after the burglary now, I have no information on where in the process the claim is or when to expect an update. The impact on me of all of this was to feel unseen for the vulnerable victim I was in that moment, and somehow at fault for what had happened (despite forensic proof to the contrary).
This is why insurance is a grudge purpose. The grudge is felt by insurer and by customer. It’s clear that to my insurer I am a risk to be mitigated and not a human being with some assets that need risk management. I pay my taxes that go to funding the police. In our county, it’s transparent where money is spent on police and what percentage of your council tax goes towards that. And yet I don’t regret a penny of that spending.
For the sake of our families, our society and our own humanity, it’s time we have the courage to explore the practice of being human at work. Let’s get this conversation started.
PS. If this topics connects with you, follow #humanbiz on Twitter to be part of the conversation.
PPS. Along with a friend and colleague, we will be setting up a small action learning set to explore how each of us can practice being human at work. I believe one person can make a difference and every one should try. It will be based in London, UK. Drop me a line if you are interested.