Great leaders humanize

All companies beyond a certain size are sociopathic colony organisms that regard their employees as inconvenient gut flora (to borrow an expression from Cory Doctorow).

At some point in their growth, many companies consider whether to stack-rank employees by their performance ratings; or publish management guidelines referring to groups of humans as “resources”; or undertake vast re-orgs solely on the basis of metrics-based abstractions.

These efficiency- and profit-seeking behaviors will inevitably be suggested and discussed, though they are universally dehumanizing to employees.

Your highest calling as a leader is to remember that your company requires employees in order to function, that employees are humans, and that the only thing that differentiates your company from an “immortal paperclip-maximizing artificial intelligence” is how you treat them.

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It’s regrettably easy to slip into a pattern of dehumanizing behaviors, and the tech industry is abundant with examples of this kind of bad leadership. Bad leaders don’t care how value is created, only that it is created, and created quickly. Bad leaders put growth before all else, then end up with company “values” like “super-pumpedness,” or a managerial seminar called “wolf school” where they teach managers to yell in each other’s faces.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was martyred for presiding over the rampant abuses that took place under his watch. His replacement, Dara Khosrowshahi, said of Kalanick’s now-infamous cultural norms, “As we move from an era of growth at all costs to one of responsible growth, our culture needs to evolve.”

In contrast, great leaders are always chasing more customer value, but a great leader is not in it for themselves first. Great leaders create value by maximizing employee growth and success. Building an organization that has taught itself how to thrive is the only way to survive for the long term. Simon Sinek calls it “the infinite game.”

The crucial difference is looking at the people you work with as an investment in future possibility rather than merely a cost center, or a fungible talent pool to be strategically molded to the current business scenario.

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It isn’t hard to treat people who work for you like… Well, like people. What’s hard is remembering to do it when your day-to-day experience shifts toward more and more Tableau dashboards and budget reports.

Cutting staff is easy when they’re just dots on a scatter plot.

But there is a cost to overlooking the value of human connection and the crucial importance of honest, transparent communication. When you fail to explain things carefully, employees become less satisfied. The University of Warwick, UK found that job satisfaction improved productivity by 12%.1 In their own internal experiments, Google found that number to be more like 37%.

It’s not just about productivity, either. About 75% of employees who report being unsatisfied at work are actively looking for a different job. It goes without saying that attrition and productivity are both very real cost drivers for your business.

Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.

—Winston Churchill

Leaders have to make hard decisions all the time. What’s important is that everyone understands how the decision was made, and that their interests were carefully considered. Communication is crucial, but your communication must lay bare your real concern for employees themselves and not simply pay lip service to how challenging the situation is.

Quite often, as leaders, we are pulled toward certain choices and outcomes by the inexorable force of business incentive; by P&L reports, budgets, planning meetings, dashboards, and the ambitious lieutenants who learned “exactly how to manage this” at McKinsey or Bain.

So, what’s the right move?

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As a leader, others look to you as a role model, and for explicit direction. It’s your absolute responsibility to demonstrate that the right way to build teams and navigate difficult operational decisions is with empathy and thoughtfulness. Putting people first, and building environments where they can learn and thrive, will create a self-sustaining organization that automatically attracts the skills you need to innovate, and will engender the commitment that will make your impossible dreams possible.

When you feel that pull toward a “logical decision” whose basis is primarily data-driven abstractions of real, human employees, do two things: first, consider whether this choice is a real one—what alternatives might exist? Second, be as uncomfortably transparent as possible.

As a great leader, you are ready to rise to this challenge.

Questions for you

  1. When you have to make a hard decision, how do you communicate it?

  2. How satisfied are the people on your teams? How do you know that?

  3. What is one thing you can do this week to show the people on your teams the impact their work is having on the business?

Lead image by Midjourney AI