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How to bring the humanity back to your business

Nov 26, 2023 Leadership, Management, Success

I have been saying to businesses large and small for decades now: there’s an affection button that you must press. It’s the button that, once activated, creates the emotion: “I like these people.” That is one of the most potent feelings in business, yet it’s also the most ignored.

Last week I showed how small, local shops often manage to have this button pressed, at least with their customers. But it’s way, way harder for the bigger business. It can be done though. Here’s a way forward.

First, appreciate why being liked is so powerful. Not respected, not feared, not admired—liked. The key reason is that it is a potent differentiator. In an era of abundance, there are multiple vendors and multiple products fighting for the same customer wallet. There are many career options available to the best talent. There are many investment options for financiers and small investors.

To stand out from the crowd, you have to do something fundamentally different. Being liked introduces emotion into the mix, and emotion is the greatest driver of human decisions. You may think you are dealing with rational creatures who make logical evaluations and act accordingly—and you will mislead yourself for the rest of your life. Affection is a powerful beacon in human interaction.

Customers don’t just buy products, they buy feelings. The best purchase stirs the right feelings, and good feelings are like glue. Employees don’t just come for the paycheck, they also want to like and be liked. Even hardcore investors are susceptible to the affection button—they are more forgiving and less demanding when their positive emotions are engaged.

So how are you going to do this liking thing, o chief executive and senior team? Start with what not to do: affection is not generated by superficial branding exercises. That’s just fru-fru—a term I introduced here recently. To be liked, you have to deserve being liked. You have to actually be likeable, rather than just pretend you are. To bring humanity back to your business, you have to let everyone work and interact like humans—not like resources, and not like automatons.

For customers, this requires several things, the most important of which is personalisation. Each customer must be understood as a distinct human, not just a number or a basket. This personalisation comes from data these days, but it must also come from human effort and intention. Encourage every employee to pay attention to customers, to remember their names and contexts. That really pays off. You must also allow customers to become stakeholders in their own service, by encouraging them to talk and share feedback—and then see their suggestions acted upon. Employees who mix with customers must be down-to-earth, warm, and approachable.

For employees, the most important thing is to feel wanted and included. Most are not. They feel shunned and sidelined, and therefore engage in passive—or even active—aggression. Honest conversations and little kindnesses from employer to employee go a very long way. A strict rules-based environment where there is manic surveillance and lots of small dictators running around is the last workplace to generate affection.

For the world at large, an organisation that has an authentic brand based on honest practice is always liked. Those who place great emphasis on quality or value for money are always popular, beyond the mere utility of the product. Those who genuinely care for the communities around them and engage in sustainable, no-harm practices also generate positive sentiment.

This is not modern, nor is it rocket science. Good businessfolk have always known that good business is about good practice and good human interaction. Most large businesses have veered sharply away from this in the modern era, and become brainlessly obsessed with efficiency and the extraction of every drop of financial return. They invest in all the things that make their businesses dislikeable: automations that make interaction robotic; controls that make employees fearful; scaling that degrades the customer experience; branding that emphasizes vapid, dubious, insincere messaging.

The path to being liked is about bringing smiles back. Whenever I come across smiling employees—natural smilers, not those with fru-fru grins—I always take a moment to commend both the staff member and the employer. The former, for being a happy influence, and the latter, for creating the conditions in which employees want to smile.

Warmth, bonhomie, kindness, concern—those are the human virtues that need to come back to big business. Where to begin? Only one place—the top. If you want your organisation to be liked, you the leaders must be liked first. Absolutely nothing will happen in a business led by sourpusses and grouches, or where cruelty is deployed in the name of effectiveness.

For likeability to happen in the business, it must first break out in the c-suite. Conviviality spreads downwards and then outwards, and eventually gives the organisation a powerful glue—one that holds on to customers, employees, and investors.

If today’s column put a smile on your face, you can probably pull this off. If it made you cynical, though, you can carry on scowling and leave the smiles to others.

(Sunday Nation, 26 November 2023)

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