Putting the Humanity Back in Business

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Written by Joe Pilcavage,
• 12 min read
childhood curiosity in action

It’s no secret that in the pursuit of building more meaningful relationships with customers, businesses have spent the last decade shifting away from promoting lofty goals, broad themes, and over-engineered solutions in favor of delivering simple, emotionally-charged messages. As visionaries and leaders of these businesses, we constantly stress the need to “be more human” – in our communication strategies, our customer experiences, and even our internal ways of working with one another. This is because it’s become a widely accepted belief that turning the dial up on humanity ultimately translates to dollar signs.

I agree. Effectively employing “humanity” does indeed drive business growth – but so many brands, businesses, and people are struggling to realize its actual potential. Why?

Well, if we’re honest with ourselves, “humanity” has just about hit critical mass as another lofty, broad-sweeping business theme. It sounds great, and it feels right, but when we get down to it, how we implement it is often a series of poorly contrived tactics or a game of copycat at best.

At the company level, we’re quick to promote our amazing cultures or celebrate our company values, when more often than not all we’re actually doing is making surface-level declarations that are just overcompensating for our lack of genuine relationships and connectivity. We have a beer on tap in our office too – now that’s “great culture!” Amirite?

In marketing, campaigns like the recent Gillette spot are further perpetuating this from a different angle – one that’s speaking so much to higher purpose and emotion that you can’t help but consider its lack of authenticity or question the deliberate sacrifice of the brand’s functional purpose in favor of doubling down on appearing “human” — all as a mechanism to drive awareness from the PR ripple effect. I can’t count the amount of commercials I’ve seen recently that have been so aspirational that it’s hard to even tell what brand its for.

Forget the fact we sell razors and shaving products. Let us sell you on our POV surrounding political tension around gender instead.”

This trickles all the way down to us as individuals, too. Despite our best efforts to promote the need for “being more human” and being “customer obsessed” in our everyday work, most of us are still living and operating behind the facades of our titles or self-serving goals. We’re always so fixated on our personal performance and others’ perceptions of our contributions that we inevitably become more focused on our own success or personal brands instead of truly focusing on the real benefits or outcomes of collaboration itself. This is, in essence, a paradox of everything “being more human” in business is out to accomplish.

So if a genuine dose of humanity can help us achieve the positive outcomes and business growth we’re constantly striving for, how or where do we start?

Design Thinking as an effective solution.

Many organizations have turned to Design Thinking (DT) as a new way to directly answer the need for infusing more humanity – largely due to the fact that it requires a fundamental use of empathy, curiosity, and collaboration to solve problems. The results speak for themselves, too. As of 2019, organizations that have effectively adopted Design Thinking are growing a whopping 3.5x faster than their peers, using it to refactor everything from marketing and sales enablement, to product development, to operational efficiency.

Beyond looking at spreadsheets of quantitative data, you can actually see a tangible increase in the energy and output of these teams across any number of projects they take on. I’ve been able to witness this firsthand as part of a team that’s often tasked with driving the implementation of DT within organizations. People are excited to take initiative, work together and generate a wealth of new innovative ideas, all with a smile on their face, and honestly, it’s impressive. With that said though, undergoing a full business transformation does require a big commitment from leadership to see it through to its returns, especially for larger organizations.

The good news is that even if you don’t have the luxury (albeit time, resources, or decision power) of running a larger org-wide transformation initiative like that, you can start immediately drawing from a few of the basic principles Design Thinking teaches to inspire genuine humanity in your organization.

Start by giving a ****. Seriously.

It might seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t stress enough how much of a game changer this can actually be. Consider this question: How many times do we go about our day with an invisible checklist of tasks that need to be done, prioritizing and delegating as many as possible? We tend to default to the shortest path possible to complete it, which for many of us means skipping the small talk and getting right down to business. What we don’t realize though is when we do that we start running blind, or dare I say become ignorant, to what we’re asking of others in the greater context of their day or lives – and what impact a seemingly simple request can have on someone’s emotional state.

A poorly timed request without first building or showing some display of empathy can be detrimental to both our working relationships with those individuals and, inevitably, the outcome we’re aiming for. If we simply take the time to lead with an interest in the human first, like asking someone how their day is, or get excited about something extracurricular in their lives before diving into a transaction or a request, it will make all the difference in how much they’re willing to reciprocate and deliver for us.

Whether it’s teammates, our customers, or the end consumer, the same rule applies. It’s why tools like Empathy Maps are so powerful.   

Get comfortable asking more questions.

I believe that for many of us, curiosity has fallen victim to our own egos, resulting in an enormous amount of artificially induced fear. Fear of failure. Fear of looking inadequate in our jobs or roles. Fear of taking risks. Fear of having a strong point of view. Fear of not being able to answer our customers needs or get them to a yes. It’s fear that’s ultimately inhibiting our ability to collaborate effectively, experiment with new ideas, or deliver the sticky, hard-hitting messages that actually inspire people to take action.

Instead, we’re quick to accept things the way they are and solve problems by finding the path of least resistance (notice a pattern here?) for getting buy-in, when we might not even be solving the right problem in the first place. Solving the right problems starts when we ask the right questions. And that can’t happen until we get comfortable asking more questions in general.

As children we’re born with an incredible, innate sense of curiosity in its purest form because there we have no preconceived filters, fears, or limits. We ask “why” (more so than our parents often cared to indulge us in answering), and we use our imaginations to explore the world and create inventions with endless possibilities. That’s something we should all take inspiration from to create better business-building habits in our adult lives and jobs today.

childhood curiosity in action

This is my youngest son (1 y/o) playing with a balloon for the first time. I could see his brain working as he tried to figure out what it did – should I eat it? bounce it? or lay on it? In that moment, his natural curiosity without any fear attached gave him freedom to explore endless possibilities.

On the surface, asking more questions might appear to make us more vulnerable, but the reality is that a well-timed question can open the door for a two-way dialogue with others that allows us to get more context, build mutual respect, and expose the real problems or challenges we should be solving for with our strategies and tactics – whether they’re internal or customer-facing. (Yes, that means also getting comfortable asking our own customers more questions, too!) More often than not, this is one of the first and most pivotal places we go wrong in our quest of embracing “humanity.”

Asking more questions may sound easy, but when it comes down to it, it can actually be deceptively challenging. Here’s a few quick ways to effectively approach it:

  • Try opening up your next meeting, presentation, or project by asking the (or addressing) the “why” before you do anything else. Why are we here? Why is this presentation important? Why are we taking this project on? What you’ll find is that typically one of two things happen – you’ll be able to frame the purpose or challenge in a way that sparks more meaningful, action-oriented outcomes, or you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that you’re solving the wrong problem or you don’t actually have to have the meeting because there wasn’t a clear focus or need in the first place.
  • Test out the “Five Whys” technique in conversations to help you more easily unpack the core issue.
  • Another simple technique that helped me navigate the right questions to ask, especially industries and topics I was unfamiliar with early on in my career, was by writing down whatever words, acronyms, or phrases I didn’t understand in the corner of my notebook during a meeting, while taking note of the ones I heard over and over again. Afterwards, I would seek out answers by asking folks in a lower-pressure environment, which more often than not, would spark genuine conversations that resulted in tighter relationships with those I was working with throughout the lifespan of the project and beyond.

Uncover and stack truths instead of exploiting individual ones.

Let’s just get right down it – when it comes to brand messaging or marketing in general, the real difference between launching an award winning campaign that’s heralded for years to come, like the classic “Smell like a man, man” Old Spice campaign, and launching one that’s ineffective (or vulnerable to being perceived as a disingenuous stab at trying to being human like in the case of Gillette), ultimately comes down to how well we can strike the balance of delivering functional and emotional relevance in the eyes of our consumers.

Call it a “proper dose of humanity,” or even simply “authenticity” but if you look closer at some of the most successful tactics and campaigns, you’ll find they all have the same thing in common: they were carefully built on a foundation that equally considers product, customer, and cultural truths.

Although there’s definitely an artform to the proper articulation and delivery of campaigns like that, the essence of a great idea can come from anyone or anywhere. One way to jumpstart a more authentic marketing effort is by first starting with simple venn diagramming exercise that explores answers to the following questions:

  • Product Truths: What is true about our product or service? What does it do? Who is this product or service for? What are the benefits of using it, functional speaking?
  • Customer Truths: What is true about our consumers? What are their shopping habits and behaviors? What about their lifestyle? What platforms, technology, or experiences do they favor? What are the benefits of using the product, emotionally speaking?
  • Cultural Truths: What’s socially or culturally true for our customers? What’s contextually relevant right now in pop culture for them and/or for this industry specifically?
  • Bringing them together: What patterns, ideas, or key insights show up in each of these? What about in the overlapping areas? What comes to mind that can speak to at least one truth from each of these? How do our truths apply to line up the message itself and the channel(s) we choose to deliver them in?

Obviously, the more data you can collect from real customers to inform your diagramming, the better. In the case of the “Smell like a man, man” campaign I mentioned earlier, its resulting lift in sales came as the result of stacking truths that keyed in on the fact that women were actually a primary audience and influence for the end user, and then doubled down on the benefits the product could deliver functionally and emotionally for them (and their significant others!)


Bringing it home (for now…)

Even beyond exploring these few ideas, there’s no shortage of tools, tips, and methods to help your business turn humanity into a growth catalyst instead of being idle lip service. In the future, we’ll explore some more techniques from reading body language to other unconventional brainstorming methods.

Interested in discussing more sooner?  I’d love to chat!