Is 'humanising' the latest business fad? (I hope not)

Adam Ferrier raises a very sensible question in his Huffington Post article: If businesses are trying to ‘Humanise’, why are they doing it with robots?

“Humanising” has become an utter cliché, he says, as “banks talk about wanting to ‘humanise banking’, energy companies wanting to ‘humanise energy’, telcos wanting to ‘humanise telcos’, and of course insurance giants talk of ‘humanising insurance’.”

I share his concern that ‘humanise’ risks becoming a careless and meaningless cliché — and rather hope that my book Humanise: Why Human-Centred Leadership is the Key to the 21st Century made a positive contribution to the conversation.

As Ferrier points out, all this “humanising” talk is really an admission that business has become fairly dehumanising, with sheer business interests coming before human concerns.

However, the fact is nobody can “humanise” anything if he or she does not actually understand what it means to be human in the first place. If you want to humanise your world or your industry, then what model of human will you attempt to replicate?

This leads me to recall three concrete traits of human-centred leaders:

1. Human-centred leaders resolve moral dilemmas with integrity

Mike, one of the finest leaders I know, was the Country Manager of a global business. Although he had kept his job during a hostile takeover, 40% of his former colleagues lost their jobs. Three weeks into his new role he received an email instructing him to dismiss one-third of his remaining employees within 48 hours. These headcount reductions made no sense to him since his region was one of the standouts performers in the global business. What made even less sense however was the manner in which he was told to dismiss friends and colleagues: a series of appointments at a nearby hotel staggered 12 minutes apart. Appalled by the inhumanity of the situation and the senselessness of the business decision, he tried to persuade the company to think differently and at least treat people better. When this failed he did what he could to help dismissed colleagues find new roles … and then handed in his own resignation.

There is nothing cliché about this. It was a tough human dilemma that called for strong character and moral principles that went beyond personal interest.

2. Human-centred leaders maintain personal contact and relationships amid the digital deluge.

You hear a lot about ‘humanising’ technology but this too betrays the fact that we sometimes unwittingly become dehumanised by our devices. (Remember that old joke about “cell” phones being so-named because we become their prisoners)

However, no amount of “human-like” features or artificial “intelligence” can replace eminently human contact.

How often do you resort to an email to avoid a face-to-face meeting, and then persuade yourself that you have taken the initiative? Unfortunately technology makes it easy to take the easy way out. It’s one thing when this is a matter of convenience and quite another when it is a matter of cowardice. Human-centred leaders are unafraid to face one another and take the time to disconnect and reflect.

for someone somewhere you represent not a person but a predictive set of behaviours

3. Human-centred leaders treat colleagues and customers with dignity, not as data

Have you ever noticed how the language used within organisations can be dehumanising? People speak of ‘Full Time Equivalent’ (FTE) workers and fractions of FTEs. But, have you ever had coffee with an FTE, let alone a 0.75 FTE? Humanising your workplace means thinking of others as human beings, not mere economic units. This is particularly important to bear in mind when so much of marketing and sales has become predictive, reducing customers to a series of anticipated behaviours. This means that for someone somewhere you represent not a person but a predictive set of behaviours. Do you find that disturbing?

Human-centred leaders value people according to their intrinsic humanity, not merely part of the income as customers and expenses as employees.

Being a human-centred leader does not guarantee financial success. It is not always easy to resolve a dilemma with integrity, to spend time with colleagues rather than resorting to an email, or to remember that others are people, not just numbers subject to calculation and manipulation.

But these are the kinds of challenges that must be faced if “humanising” is to actually mean anything. Your businesses can only be as human as you.

This one of the reasons I repeatedly ask, “Where are the new Mandelas?” “Where are the Martin Luther Kings?” “Where are the men and women of character and courage who can truly humanise our world?”

You can bring humanity to your country, your company and your community by treating others with dignity and respect, by choosing what is right for persons, not just what is right for profit.

Leadership really is the key to building a successful organisation. But human-centred leadership is the key to building a successful human organisation.