Is a new era of human business upon us?

You’ve probably seen all the press hailing New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden as the world’s greatest leader. And when I look at how she behaves, it feels like my mission to make business more human finally has a great example to look to.

I work with a huge range of fantastic companies, from banks and insurance, telecoms and energy, t’internet to tea. And whether they’re large or small, they all have formality and jargon in common. It’s almost an addiction to putting on a front and not revealing what’s true and real.

Yet Arden seems to have pulled off something remarkable. Her people trust her, they’re doing the tough things she asks of them (going hard and going early), and coronavirus cases and deaths have been relatively small. The world is hailing her as a new model of empathetic leadership. And it’s empathy that’s leading the way.

I’m in the middle of Never Split the Difference by ex FBI negotiator, Chris Voss (a great read, by the way). Chris tells us the FBI and Harvard define empathy as describing, demonstrating and understanding the needs, interests and perspective of your counterpart, without necessarily agreeing.

And yet our politicians, organisations and businesses seem almost incapable of reflecting what’s really going on for people. To look at the UK’s carefully scripted leaders deliver their daily briefings, how competent do we believe they are? If the current press roasting tells us anything, it’s that trust isn’t high. It’s as if they’ve been putting a face on for so long, they can’t take it off and be real.

That’s what Arden reveals – vulnerability and humanity. It’s as if she really does care. Behavioural economics research uncovered the pratfall effect, where trust in someone actually increases when they were seen making a mistake, like knocking a coffee cup over. Counterintuitively, someone perceived as competent showing a flaw is seen as more likeable and competent as a result.

Somehow that message hasn’t caught on in corporate circles. But maybe now’s its time.

With working from home, often with kids in the background, we can no longer stage-manage and pretend in quite the same way. We see people we perceived as high-powered and invincible, with their cat’s bum in the corner of a Zoom window. The veneer of professionalism and expertise has been disrupted. And we like them more for it.

This crisis is devastating, for so many people in so many ways. But I hope that it’ll change some things for the better. If it becomes more acceptable to be more human, as businesses and people, maybe we’ll connect with each other better. Maybe we’ll trust brands, business and the authorities more if they reveal more of their reality, especially when things don’t go so well.

If you’re reading this, thinking “I don’t have this problem”, in 20 years I’ve come across two people, who are completely, genuinely themselves in their writing. Just two!

If the rush of client calls asking for help with empathy skills are anything to go by, we may be at the start of a trend. If you’d like some help to make your business more human, my offer of free comms coaching still stands, drop me a line. Or read my free ebook, Cut the crap. How to write so people buy, which will help you, or your people, empathise with your audience, whatever the communication.