This Humanising Business

Tim Leberecht’s words on a more humane workplace. Sounds like a more more humane world to us!

Tomorrow’s leaders must know how to use vulnerability, mystery, and wonder to create a more human enterprise. But our resistance to romance in business is a huge mistake. Most employees worldwide feel disconnected at work and disenchanted with what they do. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, only 13% of respondents identified themselves as “fully engaged” on the job, yet we spend up the majority of our waking hours there. Moreover, trust in business leaders is at the lowest level since the 2008 financial crisis (according to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer).

This estrangement with business has been quickened by an inundation of technologies that allow us to measure everything, so we can know everything. Tools such as Meeting Mediator or other sensor-based sociometric applications help teams manage social dynamics at the workplace; we can analyze sentiments, for example, tracking when we’re happiest during a workday; and experts tout the “algorithmic CEO,” “algorithmic HR,” and the “quantified self going corporate” as the future of business.

Comfort, convenience, and control become less effective when the way we experience ourselves and others in business is tainted by boredom and routine, guided by processes and data, within the narrow confines of our professional lives, devoid of awe and wonder. There’s a lot of talk about “humanizing the enterprise,” but this vision will never become a reality if we exclude large parts of our humanity from business, as employees or consumers. We critically need workplace environments and customer experiences that honor our full selves, not just disparate parts. We need a new appreciation for what we cannot measure and cannot grasp, for the opaque spaces between our busy comings and goings, the things happening in the dark or not happening at all.

A new romantic movement

This is romantic terrain, in fact, it’s the playground of romanticism, the movement that emerged in the late 18th century, inspired by British poets and writers like Keats, Wordsworth, and Lord Byron, in response to the age of enlightenment, which had espoused reason over emotion, and shunned subjectivity and transcendence from large parts of society.

Two hundred years later, the new normal of datafication appears to be pushing us to another tipping point. A new romantic counter-movement is on the rise, only this time it is heralded by the new poets, the new meaning-makers of our time—business leaders and entrepreneurs. There are early signs of both corporate behemoths and start-ups shifting from a smart to a new romantic way of doing business. These companies take the freedom to occasionally defy the principles of efficiency and convenience for the sake of enchantment. They have begun to design workplace and customer experiences that acknowledge how unpredictability and elusiveness can make us human.

Fortune 500 companies like Amazon, Samsung, and engineer serendipity and deliberate detours into their workplaces to spur innovation—and delight. Detour, an app for “gorgeous” location-based audio walking tours, lets users discover the world around them with fresh ears and eyes, off the beaten path. The School of Poetic Computation promises “more poetry, less demo.” Under the tagline “Tell No One,” UK-based Secret Cinema runs “mystery screenings,” with movie and locations disclosed only on short notice. Prime Produce has set out to establish a secret guild for 21st-century social entrepreneurs. House of Genius allows entrepreneurs to discuss ideas and business in person, but anonymously. Underground supper clubs, the Burning Man festival, Snapchat, and Pop-Up Magazine take advantage of the allure of ephemeral experiences. Others celebrate the kindness of strangers: Airbnb is entirely built on ter inherently romantic notion of peeking into the lives of others.

And to find a romantic CEO, we need look no further than Microsoft, of all companies: Satya Nadella has exhibited humility and an emotional, more vulnerable leadership style since he took the helm in Redmond. Wired called it “warm, fuzzy, and slightly bonkers.” For the romantic, that’s a compliment.

Doubt not data

Fueled by this groundswell, it may not be hard to imagine that the modus operandi of business is evolving into a romantic quest. We can finally dream that another business world is possible, one where we start off the work day at a Daybreaker event, dancing with hundreds of other workers at 6:30 am; talk to strangers on a commuter train; swap desks and roles when we arrive at work; launch secret leagues with other rebels at work; and institute “I Am Here Days” where we pursue only one task with only one person.

This new romantic way of doing business offers up a world where we can show up as a different person every day and still be trusted, where we have the right to follow our hearts and change our minds. It’s a business world where “kindness is the new disruption,” as the entrepreneur and author Jessica Lawrence put it, a “delight surplus” a critical ingredient of every transaction, and uncertainty and doubt the welcome sources of innovation. It’s a business world that nurtures our desire for communion beyond community, for catharsis over consumption, for a feeling of authenticity rather than a data-based objective logic.

Romantic business leaders understand that romance in business is not about loving what you do or doing what you love. It’s not about constant happiness either, but all about small moments of adventure, mystery, and intimacy. These moments may be fleeting, but they still root in us long after we’ve signed off from our computers and stepped away from our desks.

So as we go to work and build a more human enterprise, let’s remind ourselves of the words by romantic poet William Blake: “I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.”

Melanie Greblo