I received an email from Harvard Business Review recently. They were offering a series of books called ‘How to be human at work’. A six-volume HBR Emotional Intelligence Boxed Set.And a snip at just $99.99. I am not making this up. A lot of people are at it. In fact, you get over a thousand results when you search for books on being ‘human at work’ on Amazon. Of course, an easier (and cheaper) way to be human at work would be, well, to do just that. Be human. And providing everyone can be persuaded to manage their particular ‘id’, coming out as the human beings we all are might just be one of the best things that business – and indeed, politics – can do to help their respective reputations. Clearly, ‘brand business’ has got a problem in terms of perception and trust.
We have a media and public climate, particularly in the UK, where we have elevated cynicism to a fine art, and a particular way of characterising and caricaturing people in business and political life. Sometimes, of course, people can ask for it. Business people as a group have not exactly helped themselves by too often behaving like an Alien Nation.
Despite many workplaces becoming more informal, so many senior business people still tend to wear a working uniform of suits and ties that set them apart from normal day to day lives. We can speak in stiff business jargon; appear in TV interviews like nervous corporate press releases; sometimes look and sound as though we’re on a different planet from our consumers and broader public. And executive pay has truly travelled out of this world.
The declining trust in business and institutions has been an intense research debate and provoked a fair amount of soul searching amongst business leaders Businesses only succeed by the grace of the customer and the public and we need to serve them properly, to behave responsibly, to get their ongoing support.
Despite the well-meaning of many of these gatherings about how to address ‘trust in business’, I cannot help but notice that many of the conversations revolve around senior leaders’ view that business just needs to be ‘better at communicating’ what it does and what it brings to society. ie. jobs, innovation to improve people’s lives, and of course, wealth. Quite a lot of people might even agree with those benefits in theory, but the problem is, they also believe that too much of the wealth stays in the hands of senior executives.
There is a growing consensus that inequality is truly out of control and yes, something has had to give. That has shown up in the usual suspects of events like Brexit, Trump and the rise of angry nationalism (and even the return of Marxism). But what do business leaders expect when the differential pay package ratio between a CEO and the average member of staff can be over 200? And when so much of the economic and employment risk is pushed down to those who can least afford it, whilst the employment and financial advantages of senior executives are better protected and where wealth is increasingly sucked up to the top? You get populism, governments that want to be seen to control the bad beasts of unfettered capitalism through more overt regulation – even if that’s counter-productive. It’s a source of shame and frustration for business that politicians know that they’ll get more votes from giving (usually big) business a good kicking, and introducing more controls, more regulation and more public criticism. That often means bad news for businesses, let alone bad news for its beneficial effects on society which get downplayed or under-valued.
People pick up their cues and clues about reality from what people do rather than what they say. Reputation is reality with a lag effect. If you want people to think something different about you, you usually have to do something different. Behaviour is communication.
The rest of this editorial will be published at a later date.