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The rediscovery of humanity

It’s maybe a strange thing to say, but business seems to have rediscovered the importance of people. Ever since McGregor has published ‘the human side of enterprise’ many words have been said about people and business. We can show many businesses in which people are at the core of strategic discussions. But alas, many businesses have an espoused human-centric vision, which does not come true in reality.

Human centricity defined

Being human-centric has to do with the integration of human characteristics like empathy, fairness, reciprocity, kindness and compassion into business strategy. Business people that adopt a human-centric always ask 2 questions: (1) what can the people in the organisation accomplish, (2) how does this business decision affect the people and (3) how can the business create value for the people working in it. So it’s about leverage and impact. A true human-centric strategy will take people as a point of departure and will look for a balance between people and results.

A difficult position?

Saying that you’re human-centric is easy. Making sure people experience it is not. Why? First, people have different expectations. What is felt as right by someone, might be felt as wrong by someone else. Or like one manager tells me: you cannot do right for all. Second, the subjective nature of personal experiences leads to a variety of responses. People are less predictable. So you cannot do right for all and not all the time.
It’s easier for leaders to state that the business is exclusively results-oriented. You do whatever it takes to get the result. Whatever. This is very clear and this kind of strategy leaves no room for too much subjectivity. Everything that supports the strategy is right. Everything that does not support the strategy is wrong. We all know where this kind of approach leads. One of the issues of this position is that the goal justifies the means. And in that approach people are seen as means.

A trembling Balance

A human-centric approach does not treat people as resources. A human-centric approach will see people development and wellbeing as objectives. No results without people. No people without results. It’s a (trembling) balance.
I work in a company that strives for that balance. And nevertheless, sometimes people tell me that they do not feel the human-centric approach. This kind of feedback comes when someone feels friction. Examples are negative feedback, a missed promotion,  a dismissal, …
Human centricity does not mean that all is rosy and soft. Human characteristics entail also unproductive or counterproductive behaviour like low performance, territorialism, disengagement, negative politics, overestimation of personal potential, feuds, … So whenever something happens which jeopardises the success of the collective, something will be done. Also in a human-centric approach the result is important. The biggest difference might be the way you achieve that result.


But when people tell me that human-centricity is a farce because they do not personally feel it, this is the result of confusion. Human centricity does not mean that people will always have an easy life. Neither does it mean that they can always have what they want. It does not mean that human centricity would be an excuse for not aiming at results and for not achieving them. Human centricity does not exclude the fact that sometimes-difficult decisions. It means that you will take those decisions taking into account the human side of that decision. It also means that you will not do it indifferently, but with full implication. It means that you will execute the decision in the best possible way: dignified and with respect.
This is comparable to customer orientation. A company that puts the client at the core of the business does not intend to do anything at any price for the customer. Human centricity means that you create a partnership with the people that work for the organisation. It’s a relationship of giving and taking, a balance of listening and demanding. It’s also a matter of making choices when trying to find the balance between people and results. The basis of all of this is the intention of the leaders of the company.

What is the value of human centricity?

There are two plausible answers to this question. The first one is financial and the second is more of philosophical nature. Let’s first talk about the return on investment of human centricity. There is research that suggests that companies that treat their people well will do better in the long run. In the short run there is the higher engagement and productivity. People will stay longer. There will be lower absenteeism rates. All of these elements contribute to the overall performance of the company. But finally, even with all the financial arguments, the philosophical answer might be more important. One could say that being human centricity is the only way to do business, because the alternative is worse. Being human-centric allows businesses to add value to someone’s life. And to paraphrase an old Jewish saying: if you touch one person’s life, you touch all of humanity.
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David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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