‘Business. Human After All?..’ By Rita Clifton CBE

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.

Trust me…

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.

No equal….

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.

Human after all…

All of this matters because it adds up to a public perception of business as an inhuman place. Pantomime business programmes like The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den don’t help. And frankly, as we all know, if people really behaved like that in business you’d be in employment tribunals before you could say you’re fired, as well as the loss of morale and goodwill. You can’t buy people’s enthusiasm, optimism and personal commitment if you scare and bully them senseless.

So, I think we need business to be more human.  To be and to be seen as more human. Something positive that all human beings either work in or get paid by – and so should encourage and support. Not an ugly phenomenon that might be a necessary evil, but populated by Dr Evils who can’t wait to rip the public off, despoil the environment and defy democracy. And we really need businesses to be successful – sustainably successful – if we’re to generate the kind of money we need to pay for schools, hospitals and civil society.

As part of this, businesses and business people themselves have got to behave as though the rest of the world matters. It’s all very well to say that a business is only responsible to shareholders, and treat that as a proxy for making as much profit as it can in the short term. But the longer-term responsibilities of business, to generate sustainable wealth that employs people reliably and looks after customers are as fundamentally important – and shareholders themselves aren’t just faceless institutions. They can be staff, pensioners, ordinary people with savings and a stake in society. And if we don’t have clean air to breathe, if there are no resources left and the majority lead miserable lives, who cares what the quarterly results say?

It’s interesting that successful people who at least tend to look and sound more human vs the corporate suit brigade tend to have a more sympathetic hearing. Think Richard Branson, post-Strictly Ed Balls and ditto Deborah Meaden. People even got to like her when she showed her vulnerable, funny, self-deprecating side on Strictly Come Dancing vs her grumpy frowny caricature on Dragon’s Den.

Better futures?

The world needs changing, business runs the world, so we need to change business. To me, that means being more human, acting like human beings and more like people who have families, partners, pets, consciences, pulses.  Even a sense of humour.

It is a bit better now than when I started in business, but looking at some of the PR gaffs, the disdain with which some business leaders are perceived to have treated staff and customers (you know who you/they are), there’s still a long way to go.

There’s an added imperative on doing the right thing in the digital world. If in the pre-digital days a business was full of a**holes behaving badly, there was a chance you could get away with it if you had a decent PR department and lots of money to spend on good marketing. Now, you get found out with a scale and speed that takes your breath away.  Social media and sites like Glassdoor ensure whatever happens inside gets outside PDQ. There’s no substitute for being a great business, where people care about their work, who like and believe in what they do, are prepared to tell others (and of course, this is very cheap and effective marketing too). Big, bad, lazy businesses have a lot to sweat about.

So I guess what I’m saying is, people in business shouldn’t be afraid to come out as the human beings they are, to stop pretending they know everything and that they eat concrete blocks for breakfast, admit that they are kind to animals and children (even their own), care for the planet and would ideally like to do good if they could just convince their shareholders….And frankly, if they have a real problem in behaving well, to get help to sort it out and stop visiting their anger issues on others around them.

I’m not suggesting that people let it all hang out at all times in ‘being themselves’. I prefer the term being your ‘best self’ –  i.e. a normal human being, with human emotions, trying to do the right thing, even if you’re not always certain whether something is absolutely the right answer. Sharing something honest about yourself and/or what you may have got wrong can also help people understand and at least try to do the right thing in their own case. In the end, the aim is obviously to try and do what’s best to make the most of your (good) self and those around you.

Oh what a lovely war…

This ‘human’ philosophy contrasts indeed with old business textbooks like ‘Marketing Warfare’, which used to be recommended MBA reading, and which suggested ‘ambushing’ the customer, doing ‘guerrilla warfare’ on consumers and which had a battle tank illustration on several pages. If the key to successful and sustainably valuable businesses is to build good, long term and reliable relationships with customers, it might be a good idea to start using the language and behaviour involved in good and respectful human relationships vs sharp and exploitative practice.

This also reminded me of a great talk by the late, great Anita Roddick, founder of Body Shop. When asked to talk about the original success of the business, she said ‘We advertised for employees, but people turned up instead’. She knew that to build a sustainably successful business you had to care for the people who worked for you, and recognise them as sentient beings with messy feelings, emotions and needs. John Lewis, Unilever and Patagonia and some of the ‘new paradigm’ global brands also have these priorities. Similarly, I have become allergic to the term ‘The Consumer’. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know this entity called ‘The Consumer’.  I do know different kinds of people who consume different brands. None of these terms like ‘The Staff’, ‘The Consumer’, ‘The Public’ are likely to engender a sense of humanity and connection. They can reduce people to ‘third party’ specimens to be observed and exploited, and that’s not what’s needed in business or the wider world.

I’m struck by how many people are fabulously human, funny, caring and self-deprecating in private, but as soon as they put a business suit on, or have the cameras rolling, up go the shoulders, on goes the ‘professional’ face and language…and there we are again.

Chain reaction…

To achieve all this change as well as it could be done, we need a change of chemistry at the top of organisations – literally and emotionally. Which yes, is not very subtle code for having many more women running our major businesses and institutions.

This is not to say that men can’t ‘do human’, or that women have the monopoly on EQ. But rather, things work better when they’re balanced. I won’t repeat here all the excellent studies and research from McKinsey and others that demonstrate that having more women on boards and at senior management levels leads to greater sustainable performance and less risk.

A new world…

So, I would like good business and businesses of all kinds, shapes and sizes, to succeed. Because we all need that to pay for and support – and be part of – the kind of humane and civilised society we all want. A lot of us seem to spend most of our waking moments at work (and increasingly, being ‘digitally on’ means that a part of us is always there), so it seems like a true waste that we don’t all deliberately set out to make sure work works for us and our human well-being.

In the end, I’m not sure we should talk about ‘business and society’ as though these are two separate concepts. It’s business in society, playing its role of providing interesting and productive work that helps people and helps society. And yes, provides proportionate wealth for those prepared to take risks and take responsibility for starting and leading successful businesses. It honestly doesn’t seem that hard. We all just need to be prepared to do our bit.

Rita Clifton CBE is a Portfolio Chairman and Director and a brand expert / this editorial will be published in print at a later date.